Philadelphia Eagles

Where does Wendell Smallwood fit in crowded Eagles backfield?

Where does Wendell Smallwood fit in crowded Eagles backfield?

When the Eagles' 2016 season came to a close, Wendell Smallwood could only watch. With a small MCL tear, last year's fifth-round selection was relegated to the sidelines as his team escaped its final three games with a pair of wins against divisional rivals and nearly a third last-gasp win in Baltimore.

And up until only about a month ago, it seemed as if Smallwood was potentially going to be the lead horse in a crowded Eagles backfield.

But with the signing of LeGarrette Blount, the Eagles made clear that they needed to add more at the running back position and Smallwood's role was thrown back into question. At minicamp practices this week, he was primarily used in second-team reps with Blount and Darren Sproles mostly on the field alongside the first unit.

For most 23-year-old players in just their second season — especially those with fewer than 80 career carries and only one touchdown — a signing like that of Blount could easily shake their confidence. But for Smallwood, it's all about creating a dynamic foursome that can give Carson Wentz and the Birds' offense plenty of backfield diversity.

"I definitely think [signing Blount] adds diversity to our offense. I think our room is going to be the best room on the field," Smallwood said. "That competition we're up against and that we'll get better is going to make this team lean on us and be those dogs on offense that are going to push this team forward.

"I've been doing it all. There's nothing that I don't do in practice — I run routes, I run the ball. There's nothing that I don't think I can do."

The contrast between the Eagles' top four backs is stark. There are two veterans (Sproles and Blount have 21 seasons combined between them), and then there's Smallwood along with rookie Donnel Pumphrey. Sproles and Pumphrey are both smaller, quicker weapons at 5-foot-8 and 5-foot-6, respectively, each weighing in at 190 or less. And although Smallwood isn't necessarily the 6-foot, 250-pound bruiser that Blount is, he's definitely not the shiftiest of the group.

That also excludes a pair of undrafted free agents from the last two seasons, Byron Marshall and Corey Clement, as well as Ryan Mathews, who is likely to be released once healthy.

Still, Blount's presence changes the entire narrative in the Eagles' running back room. This is a guy who has two Super Bowl rings with the New England Patriots in the last three seasons to go along with more than 5,000 career rushing yards and 50 touchdowns. Excluding Mathews, the entire current running back corps has just 34 scores and only 3,600 combined yards on the ground (although Sproles has done most of his damage in the passing and special teams games during his career).

"LeGarrette just brings the boom," Smallwood said. "He's that kind of guy that can run you over, that can make you miss. He adds that load to us. He gives us that power and just him driving us, doing what he can do great and driving us good to be as good as him ... it takes our running back room to the sky."

So where does Smallwood fit into the mix now? Blount is certainly going to be the bruiser of the group and Sproles will be the pass-catching threat that he's been throughout his time in Philly. Pumphrey is likely to be somewhat of a development project as he grows into his smaller frame, despite setting NCAA rushing records in his time at San Diego State.

Is Smallwood the run-blocking option, improving in an area in which he struggled last season? Is he the perfect hybrid of the group who ultimately emerges as the lead back that many expected him to be in early May?

Or does he wind up getting left out of the mix?

"With all the guys we have, everyone can do different things and I think it's going to be great to have that game plan and be able to switch it up," Smallwood said. "We're not going to be that one-guy team where they can play for one guy. They're going to have to prepare for Sproles, Pump, me, everyone who's here, so I don't think it's going to be easy for anyone."

Although Eagles vice president of football operations Howie Roseman brought in plenty of passing-game options for Wentz, he also provided stability for the entire offensive unit. Jason Kelce remains as the team's starting center and with Jason Peters now signed through 2019, the team will return the same O-line group that enabled the offense to flourish in the final three games — after scoring 24 or fewer points between Weeks 5 and 14, the Eagles finished with 26, 24 and 27 points and at least one rushing TD.

That continuity should benefit Smallwood as much as anyone, who will now need to make an even bigger jump in training camp if he hopes to find himself on the field once September rolls around.

"We've kind of gotten a feel for each other," Smallwood said. "We know the guys and we know where they're going to be. In the running back room this offseason, we've been studying their blocks and studying what they're doing and how they're doing it.

"The most important thing is being decisive. That's the major jump I've made already and being more confident in what I'm doing. And then coming to the field, if I do something wrong, I know I did it 100 percent."

Dolphins' Nate Allen "can only think of positives" of his time with Eagles

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Dolphins' Nate Allen "can only think of positives" of his time with Eagles

For the first time since he left the Eagles after the 2014 season, Nate Allen found himself practicing at the NovaCare Complex Monday afternoon.

Still wearing No. 29. Just a Dolphins' No. 29 these days.

"It was different," he said. "When I got here, it felt like I was still living down the street. So many memories. All of them good.

"It brought back a lot of memories even when I pulled into downtown, just remembering (the city), staying down there near some places you used to eat. It was good. When I look back, it was just was a great experience for me.”

While Byron Maxwell and Kiko Alonso held big press conferences at a podium for a battery of cameras and microphones (see story), Allen — who spent twice as long with the Eagles as Maxwell and Alonso combined — was 100 yards away quietly talking about his own tenure in Philly.

"Obviously went through ups and downs, but that's kind of the game of football," he said. "But when I look back I can only think of positives. 

"Being with Andy (Reid) and Chip (Kelly) and just the memories and the relationships I've built around here, it was a great experience."

Allen was always a divisive player here.

He was drafted with a second-round pick acquired from the Redskins in the Donovan McNabb deal, and he essentially was brought here in 2010 to replace Brian Dawkins, a year after he had signed with the Broncos. 

Allen became a steady starter with the Eagles but was never a crowd favorite, mainly because he wasn't Dawk. But from 2010 through 2014, he started 69 games, picked off 10 passes, survived the coaching change from Reid to Kelly, reached the playoffs twice.

During that five-year span, only two Eagles — Trent Cole and Brent Celek — played in more games than Allen.

In the last 25 years, only two safeties have played more games in an Eagles uniform than Allen — Dawk and Michael Zordich.

"It was huge being under Andy," Allen said. "You're not going to find a better coach than him, so the fact that I was able to come into that situation and I had some older guys—- like Asante (Samuel), Ellis Hobbs, Quintin Mikell — to take me under their wing and show me the ropes, it was big."

Allen spent the last two years with the Raiders before signing a one-year, $3.4 million deal with the Dolphins this past spring.

“He’s done exactly what we brought him here to do," Dolphins coach Adam Gase said Monday. "His job is to make sure nobody gets over the top and if somebody gets to you, get them down. He seems to be in the right place (at the) right time. He does a great job as far as knowing his assignment. He can help other guys. 

"It’s great having a veteran leader in that room, another one, and his special teams value is very high for us."

Allen, Brandon Graham and Clay Harbor are the only members of that 2010 Eagles draft class still in the NFL.

Anybody seen Daniel Te'o-Nesheim lately?

"I’ve got to give the good Lord thanks for keeping me healthy," Allen said after the Eagles-Dolphins joint practice Monday (see observations). "I’ve been blessed to play for … this is going on eight (years) so yes, it’s been a blessing."

The Dolphins have Allen penciled in as a starting safety opposite Rashad Jones in a back-seven that also includes Maxwell and Alonso.

Eight years after the Eagles drafted him out of South Florida, Allen is an example of what persistence, durability and intelligence can do.

Most players in the NFL are closer to Allen than Dawk. They're not stars, they're just smart and talented and able to play well into their 30s.

What's the difference between Nate Allen of 2010 and Nate Allen of 2017?

“I’m just wiser (and) more mentally in-tune to the game," Allen said. "I’ve just seen a lot now and I feel like I’ve been through different situations and just about every situation you probably can be in. So wisdom, probably.”

Celek, Graham, Jason Peters and Jon Dorenbos are the only players left from Allen's rookie year, but there are 18 players on the team that he played with at some point here and several coaches, including Doug Pederson.

"It's just good seeing those guys," he said. "You build relationships with those guys and obviously we're on different teams but you still have those relationships and it's just great to see them again."

Former teammate Jay Cutler thinks Alshon Jeffery will be just fine

Former teammate Jay Cutler thinks Alshon Jeffery will be just fine

For the last few weeks, there has been plenty of talk about Alshon Jeffery. He was hurt, then Doug Pederson kept him out and then his position coach said he was behind (see story).
 
Turns out, all everyone needed was just a little Jay Cutler perspective on the whole situation.
 
Cutler, in his typical Jay Cutler fashion, said on Monday that he wouldn't be worried at all about Jeffery.
 
"He'll be fine," said Cutler, who was teammates with Jeffery for five seasons in Chicago before joining the Dolphins this summer. "Obviously, I don't know what's going on here, I don't know where he is in the system, what his production's been like.
 
"As long as he's healthy, he's going to produce. He's going to go out there, he's a pro. He knows football, he's got a great feel, great instincts. If he's healthy, that wouldn't be a guy I'd worry about."
 
Cutler and the Dolphins are in town early for this Thursday's preseason game at the Linc and are having joint practices with the Eagles on Monday and Tuesday. Obviously, a big topic of conversation with Cutler was about his former teammate.
 
So a few questions later, Cutler was again asked about him.
 
"You guys are worried about Alshon," Cutler said jokingly. "He's going to be fine. What's going on? Is something going on that I don't know about?"
 
It was explained to Cutler that Jeffery missed some practice time during camp after hurting his shoulder. 
 
"Well, he had a shoulder injury," Cutler said. "What do you want him to do?"
 
Jeffery, who signed a one-year deal to join the Eagles this offseason, played in the Eagles' second preseason game after missing the first. And on Monday, he probably had his best practice since joining the team (see 10 observations).
 
Dolphins head coach and former Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase has said Jeffery is the only player he's ever coached that had him feel comfortable enough to tell his quarterback to just throw it up even if he isn't open.
 
Carson Wentz is still building that type of chemistry with Jeffery, but Cutler remembers what it was like to have a target like that.
 
"You just throw it," Cutler said. "You just throw it out there and he'll make it right. You get a guy like that 1-on-1, you can back shoulder him, you can put him over the top. It's hard to cover a guy like that and I'm sure Carson and some of these quarterbacks have witnessed his ability to catch the back shoulder balls and get on top of guys as well."
 
Jeffery is two years removed from his last 1,000-yard season, but the Eagles are really hoping he can regain the form that led to back-to-back seasons with at least 85 catches and 1,100 yards in 2013 and 2014. Cutler, of course, was his quarterback then.
 
And he still thinks his former teammate has it.
 
"Obviously, he's had a shoulder injury," Cutler said. "He had some injuries for us (the Bears) that were speed bumps for him. But when he's healthy and he's rolling, he's one of the best out there."