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.
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.