Counting Down the Eagles’ Offseason Needs: No. 10, Running Back

Counting Down the Eagles’ Offseason Needs: No. 10, Running Back

Free agency is right around the corner, and the draft will be here before you know it. With the Philadelphia Eagles' offseason in full swing, we're examining where the roster stands at each position, counting down based on team need. Up first: running back.

 

How does it feel, Eagles fans? How does it feel to have the NFL’s rushing champion in the prime of his career and locked into a contract through the year 2017?

Few running backs were even in a class with LeSean McCoy this season. Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson is probably still the best pure ball-carrier in the league, while Jamaal Charles for Kansas City and Matt Forte for Chicago rival Shady for the distinction of top do-it-all back. Then there’s everybody else.

If you go strictly by the numbers, McCoy stood alone in 2013. His 1,607 yards on the ground were 268 more than the runner-up, and but for one week, he was the wall-to-wall leader in rushing. His 2,146 yards from scrimmage also led the league, not to mention was the 33rd-highest total in NFL history.

McCoy now owns the Eagles single-season records for rushing yards and touchdowns. The two-time All-Pro is only 1,065 yards shy of becoming the franchise’s all-time leading rusher. What took Wilbert Montgomery eight seasons to do, Shady could conceivably accomplish in just six.

McCoy turns 26 in July. Needless to say, running back will not be high on the list of the Eagles’ priorities this offseason.

 

Who’s No. 2?

One of the more interesting developments on the depth chart toward the end of 2013 was who Chip Kelly began calling on to spell McCoy. Bryce Brown had served as the definitive No. 2 behind Shady for the first three months of the season, but at most, he shared those duties down the stretch.

After appearing in all of 14 offensive snaps through 12 games, Chris Polk actually registered 33 to Brown’s 30 over the final four weeks. Brown still carried the ball significantly more during that period though (17 to 6), while Polk was utilized more as a receiver (also 17 to 6).

Now, the sample sizes are probably too small to claim those run/pass splits were by design, and Chip would tell us he doesn’t look at it in terms of who’s two, who’s three. However, there was a clear shift in the way both backs were deployed. We can only say one of two things definitively.

Either there was something the offense wasn’t getting from Brown, or the coaching staff really likes Polk.

The head coach was asked about the distribution following the Eagles’ win over the Lions—the first instance there was a measurable difference.

“One thing I know about Chris is in the last couple of weeks specifically, he has really, really practiced very well, and I think, like we said at every position, it's an open competition, and you keep showing us that you deserve time on the field, then that's what it's all about.”

Brown’s final numbers didn’t look too bad (75 CAR, 314 YDS, 4.2 AVG, 2 TD), but he was a bit of a disappointment for much of the season. His 65-yard touchdown against the Bears in Week 16 was a huge lift. Otherwise, he averaged less than three yards per carry in nine games.

Polk only had 11 carries, but made the most of them, averaging 8.9 yards per attempt and finding the end zone three times. He also averaged 15.3 yards on four receptions. That level of production, though not sustainable, is insane.

Could Polk overtake Brown completely for the No. 2 job? It seems plausible. Polk will be a restricted free agent next offseason, so it might be time to have a look anyway while Brown is under contract through 2015.

Then again, all of this sort of a moot point anyway. In the playoff loss to New Orleans, both Brown and Polk were on the field for just one snap each. It’s Shady’s backfield when it matters most.

 

Is Bryce Brown Trade-Bait?

It’s a question fans been asking ever since the 2012 seventh-round pick burst on to the scene with 347 yards and four touchdowns in back-to-back games last year. It’s readily apparent to anybody that Brown—who’s been compared to Bo Jackson—is a gifted runner. What could the Eagles get in a trade?

Perhaps less than you think. There were five trades involving running backs in the last calendar year, two of which could be templates for a deal involving Brown.

The first of the two looks good for the Birds, as the New Orleans sent Chris Ivory to the Jets in exchange for a fourth-round pick in a draft-day deal. Ivory never flashed explosiveness like Brown, but demonstrated he could be a consistently solid NFL back in three seasons with the Saints.

On the other hand, the Bucs could only garner a seventh-round pick and an undrafted back with no NFL experience (Jeff Demps) in return for LeGarrette Blount, who was once considered a first-round talent and has since revived his career in New England. Blount had other issues, but Brown too is something of a question mark.

At this stage, Brown has had more bad games than good. He still has a tendency to bounce every play to the outside. And while he did not fumble at all in ’13, he’s not that far removed from a rookie season in which he put the ball on the carpet at a rate of roughly once per game.

At best, Brown’s trade value probably lies somewhere in between. A team could certainly take a chance on his potential, but for a late-round draft choice, he might be more valuable to Philadelphia right now as a cheap backup who’s under contract and has high upside.

 

Player to Watch: De’Anthony Thomas

With so much invested in McCoy and a pair of promising, young backups already in the fold, the Eagles certainly aren’t going to spend money bringing in any free agents. If Brown is expendable though, it’s not totally improbable the club would draft another back—especially somebody who’s a perfect fit for Kelly’s offense.

De’Anthony Thomas is a name you’re going to be hearing a lot between now and May because he is just that. After all, Thomas played for Chip at Oregon. Eliot Shorr-Parks looked at the possibility of a reunion last week for NJ.com.

It isn't clear how high Thomas will go, but if he falls out of the first round, there is a chance the Eagles could pounce on the 5-foot-9, 169-pound multi-threat back.

Sure, the Eagles aren't exactly thin at running back, with Chris Polk and Bryce Brown proving to be more than capable back ups. Thomas would be an upgrade over both, however, as he much better out of the backfield as a pass catcher than Brown, and is a better pure runner than Polk

Thomas did it at all for the Ducks, finishing third in school history in all-time yards behind LeMichael James and Kenjon Barner. He’s a running back, a wide receiver, a kick returner, punt returner and track star all rolled into one.

Is it a team need? Not exactly, but then again Thomas has tools that Brown and Polk and even McCoy do not possess. It would be difficult not to get excited about that type of versatile addition to the offense.

NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

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NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

Dragan Bender

Position: Power forward
Height: 7-1
Weight: 225
Team: Maccabi Tel Aviv

Croatia’s latest basketball export is just 18 years old. He won’t turn 19 until November. Like a lot of teenagers, he’s hardly a fully finished product. The kid is raw, but his obvious potential figures to make him a high lottery pick in the upcoming draft.

Through 38 games with Maccabi Tel Aviv this season, Bender averaged just 12.9 minutes. He took 3.7 shots per game. He shot 42.3 percent from the floor, 33.8 percent from deep (on 2.0 attempts per game) and 71.9 percent from the line. He didn’t get to the line very often, by the way. In fact, he hardly got there at all, taking less than one attempt per game from the stripe.

But Bender’s appeal isn’t about what he is right now; it’s rooted in what he could become with time. There’s a reason why all 30 NBA teams sent someone to watch him play this year, according to DraftExpress. Investing in him could yield a significant return. Also, dude’s name is Dragan Bender. He was destined to become a pro athlete or conquer King’s Landing. Either way, good things ahead.

Strengths
Bender has been on the NBA’s projection radar for a while now. He’s worked hard to develop his shooting. Initially thought of as a non-shooter with wonky mechanics, Bender changed his stroke. It’s more compact and efficient now. Despite the small sample size, Bender had a 54.1 true shooting percentage and a 51.4 effective field goal percentage through 38 games this season.

He could pass more, but when he does he’s pretty savvy — particularly with the full-court outlet pass. Defensively, he’s not a rim protector, but he has a long wingspan (7-2) that should help him be a good pick-and-roll defender with time. In the increasingly switch-everything NBA, that’s a plus.

Also, did we mention his name is Dragan Bender? Donald Bender works in Croatian finance. Dave Bender has a nice B&B on Hvar Island. Dragan Bender is a potential NBA star.

Weaknesses
He’s reportedly put on some weight recently and worked hard to develop a better base, but he’s 7-1 and 225 pounds. Someone needs to feed him lots of sandwiches and protein shakes. Adding muscle for the long-slog NBA season will be important.

In addition to having a still-developing body and skill set, he hasn’t faced top-level international competition yet on a regular basis. He needs minutes against the best in the world, and in order to get those minutes he’ll have to refine his game – particularly his ball-handling and driving, which are still works in progress.

Unlike some other recent NBA imports (Nikola Mirotic and Kristaps Porzingis among them), it’s probably going to take a while before Bender can be a consistent contributor in the league. Any team that takes him has to acknowledge the inherent time commitment.

How he’d fit with the Sixers 
If we’re talking about how he’d fit with the Sixers, who had a long-term plan and weren’t in a hurry to rush anything, the Sixers who embarked on an open-ended journey with no fixed timetable or end point, you could make a case for Bender (but not with the first overall pick). Five or seven years from now, Bender could be a polished product – an outside shooting threat with, perhaps, an expanded offensive game that allows him to put the ball on the floor and optimize his passing and scoring. You could imagine him growing defensively and creating mismatch problems. You could envision it – over time.

The question is whether these Sixers, who keep talking about transitioning from the rebuild into whatever comes next, are about to scrap the slow-and-low approach to cooking their roster in favor of adding on-court heat and off-court PR sizzle. If that’s the case, Bender wouldn’t fit well at all. Not to mention that taking Bender means adding another body to an already clogged frontcourt.

NBA comparison
Lots of people have drawn a parallel between Bender and Porzingis. That’s the easy, reflexive comparison. Both are tall, lanky stretch fours from a not dissimilar region of the world. But really that’s unfair to Bender. Porzingis declared for the NBA draft back in 2014, only to withdraw his name and wait until last year. The wait helped elevate him to more of a known commodity. At that point, he had played three seasons for Sevilla of Liga ACB in Spain, one of the best leagues in Europe that features some of the premiere international talent. Bender isn’t there yet in terms of experience, and their games aren’t one-to-one equivelants anyway. Bender might ultimately shake out as something closer to Andrei Kirilenko (if he can improve his handle) or Nikola Mirotic.

Draft projection
Top five. If he lasts any longer, it will be a surprise.

Eagles mailbag: Jordan Matthews; injury concern, leading rusher

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Eagles mailbag: Jordan Matthews; injury concern, leading rusher

Another day, another mailbag. 

I hope you're enjoying your Memorial Day Weekend. If you're reading this on the beach or at a BBQ, well done. 

Yesterday, I answered the first round of your questions about Doug Pederson, Brandon Spikes and the possibility of adding another running back. 

Today, I'll answer some more: 

At times, Jordan Matthews will still be in the slot this season. But he won't be there all the time. 

In Doug Pederson's offense, the receivers will move around quite a bit, which means we'll see Matthews lining up out wide on both sides and in the slot. He has the ability to do both. Either way, he's going to be on the field. He's clearly the Eagles best receiver and they're not going to take him off the field. 

I think there's a good chance we'll see some Josh Huff in the slot this year, which would make a ton of sense to me. Huff is at his best when he gets the ball in his hands and can make something happen. He's shifty enough to play in the middle. 

The idea that slot receivers are just small, shifty guys is outdated. It's all about matchups and Pederson won't be afraid to move his receivers around to find the best ones. 

Good question. I'll give you two names. One on offense and one on defense. 

Now, I didn't just pick the best players, I picked the best players with the biggest drop off to their backups. So on offense, it's Jason Peters and on defense it's Jordan Hicks. 

The scary thing: it wouldn't be shocking if either of these two go down in 2016. 

If Peters goes down, the Eagles will be fine at left tackle, because Lane Johnson will shift over. But that means either Dennis Kelly or Halapoulivaati Vaitai will come in. We all know what's happened in the past when Kelly comes in, and Vaitai is just a rookie. Not a ton of great depth at tackle. 

As for Hicks, we saw what happened to the defense when he went out last season. And this year, the team has virtually no depth at linebacker. If Hicks went down, either veteran special teams player Najee Goode or rookie Joe Walker would need to fill in. Yikes. 

I understand it's kind of a cop-out to just pick the top running back on the depth chart, but that's what I'm doing. I know Ryan Mathews has a lengthy injury history, but I can't see Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood or Kenjon Barner being the team's leading rusher. 

And when healthy, Mathews was the team's best running back in 2015, going for 539 yards on 106 carries, an average of 5.1 yards per attempt. If he manages to play 12 games this year, I think he'll be the team's leading rusher. 

Phillies pitching prospect Mark Appel hits DL with shoulder strain

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Phillies pitching prospect Mark Appel hits DL with shoulder strain

Mark Appel, whose fastball velocity was down considerably in the first inning of his last start, was placed on the disabled list Friday with a shoulder strain.

Appel, 24, is 3-3 with a 4.46 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in eight starts for Triple A Lehigh Valley in his first year in the Phillies' system. He's struggled his last four times out, allowing 18 runs (15 earned) in 16⅓ innings on 20 hits and 11 walks.

The No. 1 overall pick in 2013 out of Stanford, Appel has had a disappointing pro career to this point. In 62 minor-league games (61 starts), he has a 5.04 ERA. The Phillies acquired him from Houston as part of the Ken Giles trade this past winter.

Appel's trip to the DL creates an opportunity for right-hander Ben Lively, who was promoted from Double A Reading to Triple A to take Appel's place in the IronPigs' rotation. Lively, acquired from the Reds for Marlon Byrd prior to the 2015 season, is 7-0 with a 1.87 ERA this season.

Rehab updates
Leftfielder Cody Asche and left-handed reliever Mario Hollands had their rehab assignments transferred to Triple A Lehigh Valley. 

Asche is 5 for 34 (.147) with two home runs and 12 strikeouts during his stints with Clearwater and Reading. 

Hollands has been sharp, posting a 1.04 ERA in 8⅔ innings with 12 strikeouts and one walk.