Donnel Pumphrey

Wendell Smallwood ready for his 'chance to take it' in Eagles' next preseason game

Wendell Smallwood ready for his 'chance to take it' in Eagles' next preseason game

Don't give that fourth running back spot to Corey Clement just yet.

Wendell Smallwood isn't going to go down quietly.

Smallwood, the Eagles' second-year running back from West Virginia, is back practicing with no restrictions after missing nearly two weeks with a hamstring injury.

Smallwood has yet to play in a preseason game, and with undrafted rookie Clement acquitting himself well both at practice and in the first couple preseason games, the pressure is on Smallwood to produce soon to secure a roster spot.

“It was real frustrating," Smallwood said after practice Monday. "Just missing those reps, missing two straight preseason games, not being able to get better. You get better with those game reps and those practice reps, so I think I need to start taking advantage of every one I have."

Smallwood got hurt two weeks ago Monday, and although he returned on a limited basis last week, Monday's practice with the Dolphins was his first with no restrictions since he got hurt.

He looked good. He looked fast and physical. And he said he finally feels 100 percent.

“I think so," he said. "I feel good. Today I forgot about it. Wasn’t even thinking about the injury. Didn’t think twice about cuts, running, bursting, anything like that. I think I got it back.

"It’s a huge relief just because last week practicing I could sense that it was still there and I was still kind of thinking about it, and the coaches could sense it, so being this week, I’m full go, it’s not bothering me. You could see I got some of my burst back. I’m good."

Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said Monday that Smallwood is more of an every-down back than he first realized.

"You know, I think Wendell is a true three-down back," he said. "When we first drafted him, I kind of looked at him as more like a first- and second-down back. I thought he would be OK on third down, but really he's turned out to be better on third down than I thought.

"So really I think he is a very versatile back who knows protections very well, who runs good routes, who catches the ball well. And then I think he's a slashing runner on first and second down, so we like that combination. He's done very well. He works very hard at it. Love him mentally, and really glad he's in the mix."

Smallwood played well early last year before he admittedly got out of shape, hurt his knee and wound up on injured reserve.

He ran for 79 yards against the Steelers and 70 against the Falcons — the Eagles' two biggest wins of the year — before fading later in the season.

He said learning how to work through an injury is an important lesson for a young NFL player.

"I’m definitely more equipped in my second year getting hurt than my first year because I dealt with it differently," he said. "I let it get to me a lot and kind of shied away from the game, but this year I got more into the game.

“It was frustrating, but I stayed into the game plan, stayed in my playbook, [and] I didn’t let it get to me. I stayed dialed in. It was frustrating to me, but I know what I can do and I know what I’m capable of. I’m right back out here and I’m ready to go, and I’m full go."

Much has been made of the Eagles' struggles running the ball this preseason.

LeGarrette Blount is averaging 1.9 yards on nine carries, rookie fourth-round pick Donnel Pumphrey has two yards on seven carries, Clement and Byron Marshall are both averaging under 4.0 yards per carry, and Darren Sproles and Smallwood haven't gotten any carries.

As a group, the Eagles' running backs are averaging 2.4 yards per carry.

The Eagles finish the preseason against the Dolphins at the Linc Thursday — the first offense is expected to play into the third quarter — and at the Meadowlands against the Jets, when most starters won't paly.

Smallwood knows people are already questioning the Eagles' running game.

“We sense it, we hear it, but like Doug (Pederson) said, we’re not going to overreact, we’re not going to underreact," he said. "It’s preseason, we’re going to get better at it, we know what we’re capable of doing. We’re not going to let it get to us that much.

“This game is going to be the one where we dial up the run and show how we can run the ball."

And it needs to be the game that Smallwood does the same thing.

“I’m definitely very hungry," he said. "I missed a lot of reps and missed a lot of game reps that could have made me better. So this is my chance to take it and go full throttle.

“It’s the game, man. It’s my welcome home party. I’m back on the field, going to go out there, I'm going to get some plays, I’m going to get some runs, going to get some passes. It’s real important for me."

Smallwood finished last year with a 4.1 rushing average, becoming only the fourth Eagles rookie running back to rush for 300 yards with an average of 4.0 or more in the last 35 years (also Correll Buckhalter, LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown).

And he felt before the injury he had come a long way from his rookie year.

“I definitely think I took that step," he said. "From last year to this year, I took that leap that I needed, and I think just my running, I was more dialed in, my shoulder pads were getting low, I was running through people instead of trying to run around. I wasn’t thinking so much. I was just playing with confidence.

"Now I’ve just got to do it Thursday night — and every day we’re out here at practice."

Eagles' latest Achilles heel emerges in preseason

Eagles' latest Achilles heel emerges in preseason

Right when the Eagles get finished plugging one potential hole, another springs up.

For months, cornerback was considered by far the greatest weakness on the Eagles' roster, but Howie Roseman appears to have taken care of that with the trade for Ronald Darby. Now, all of a sudden, the Eagles' secondary has the potential to be a strength in 2017.

Yet, just as the plan at corner is beginning to take shape, another concern is emerging halfway through the preseason, at a position many fans thought Roseman solidified in May. Running back looks like it could quickly become a serious problem for the Eagles if it hasn’t reached that point already.

It’s only preseason, and the offensive line hasn’t done him any favors, but LeGarrette Blount has nine carries for 17 yards with a fumble in two games. Fifth-round draft pick Donnel Pumphrey – who the coaching staff seemed enamored with this spring — has 14 total touches for 34 yards. After a strong start at training camp, Wendell Smallwood has yet to play in an exhibition game due to a hamstring injury. And by now, everybody is aware 34-year-old Darren Sproles isn’t an every-down back.

The best any running back has looked in exhibition games is undrafted rookie Corey Clement, by far. Whether that’s a testament to his development or a commentary on the state of the backfield is a matter of perspective.

Regardless, you could’ve seen this mess coming from a mile away.

The Blount signing was met with tremendous enthusiasm when it really should’ve been met with tremendous skepticism. Though he rushed for 1,161 yards and led the NFL with 18 touchdowns in 2016, Blount averaged just 3.9 yards per carry, sat by in free agency as the Patriots moved to replace him, and turns 31 in December. He’s never been a threat as a receiver, and even his gaudy numbers last season with the Super Bowl champions were an outlier compared to the rest of his career.

The reality is Blount is not a mortal lock to make the Eagles' roster. He likely will, because he still has value in short yardage and at the goal line, and most of all, because the competition hasn’t made enough of a push. However, releasing Blount would only cost the Eagles $400,000 against the salary cap, according to OverTheCap.com, while his age and the limitations of his skill set are worth reiterating.

The question is what then?

While the Eagles have toyed with getting Pumphrey and Sproles on the field at the same time, projections as to how prevalent those designer packages would be always felt ambitious as well. Listed at 5-foot-9, 176 pounds, Pumphrey has not looked like an NFL-ready player through two games. Even if he is ready to contribute, that is not an offense designed with running the football in mind.

The Eagles’ ability to let Blount go would seem to hinge almost solely on Smallwood. Of course, it was an unwillingness to rely on a second-year player with 83 touches that caused the club to seek veteran help in the first place.

Smallwood is not an unimpressive prospect. A fifth-round draft pick from West Virginia a year ago, Smallwood has the size and athletic ability to handle the bulk of the work. He was running with authority in camp. He simply hasn’t been able to stay healthy, which is his biggest shortcoming at this point, aside from inexperience. It’s impossible to tell whether Smallwood is in line to finish with the most touches in this backfield (regardless of Blount’s presence) or if he’s fighting for his job.

Clement is the bright spot in all of this and arrives as a more polished pass protector than Smallwood was as a rookie. Seeing as inexperience was one of the primary reasons the Eagles weren’t willing to entrust Smallwood as the primary ball carrier, it’s difficult to imagine Clement could be the guy the in September.

Again, some of the culpability for Blount’s struggles falls on the offensive line. Some. Blount’s last season in New England was far from the norm, and for most of his eight-year career, he’s been purely a situational player. Even under optimal circumstances, expecting him to recreate last season’s numbers, or come close, never made much sense.

And while it would be easy to chalk up the pitiful ground attack as a symptom of the preseason, the fact is these games have exposed a problem that’s been lurking beneath the surface. Blount is old and not an ideal fit for the Eagles' offense. Pumphrey is an undersized rookie. Sproles is Sproles. Smallwood is a mystery.

Up until a week ago, everybody was worried about the cornerbacks. Before that, it was the wide receivers, until the Eagles made significant investments in talent over the offseason. All along, there’s been an underrated need at running back, or at the very least, an uncertainty.

Try as he might, Roseman can’t seem to find a solution for every hole on the roster — and it’s beginning to look like running back is the spot the Eagles might spring a leak.

Will Eagles make a better effort to establish the run in 2017?

Will Eagles make a better effort to establish the run in 2017?

It was just one preseason game, but it all seemed oddly familiar. 

Against the Packers last Thursday night, the Eagles passed the ball an astounding 54 times and ran just it just 19. Matt McGloin threw 42 passes! 

While offensive coordinator Frank Reich blamed the lack of rushing attempts on the Packers' blitzing defense, for many fans watching it probably seemed like the same old story. Doug Pederson abandoned the run. 

"We didn’t run it very well against Green Bay," Reich said, "but I'm very confident that we will run the ball well this year."

For a former quarterback and quarterbacks coach who comes from the Andy Reid school of offense, Pederson has earned the reputation of being a pass-happy play-caller and coach. After all, he's the coach who allowed his rookie quarterback to attempt over 600 passes last season. 

Despite Pederson's reputation, free agent pickup LeGarrette Blount said he didn't hesitate to sign with the Eagles this offseason. 

"That didn't concern me," Blount said this week. "You just have to take advantage of every opportunity you get. Some games you might run it a lot, some games you might not run it as much. I'm confident that I'll touch the ball as much as they need me to."

In fairness, the Eagles weren't as pass-heavy as they appeared in 2016. In Pederson's first year as head coach, the Eagles passed 609 times and ran 438 times. So they ran the ball 41.83 percent of the time, 16th in the NFL. Despite that percentage, the Eagles were still the 11th-best rushing team in the league, averaging 113.3 yards per game.  

While the Eagles released the often-injured Ryan Mathews on Tuesday, Howie Roseman did his part to bring in adequate replacements. He signed Blount as a free agent and drafted Donnel Pumphrey in the fourth round. Those two will combine with Darren Sproles and Wendell Smallwood to create a four-headed running attack. 

While there are still a few weeks before the opener, Reich said the look of the running back rotation is beginning to crystallize a little bit. 

"We all have our roles," Sproles said. "I feel like the last couple of practices, the running game is starting to come together."

In his rookie season, a season in which he didn't become the starter until a week before the opener, Carson Wentz threw an astonishing 607 passes. That's more than any Eagles quarterback had ever thrown in a season and the second most an NFL rookie has ever had. 

Pederson even admitted in July that Wentz probably felt like the Eagles asked him to do too much at times as a rookie (see story)

So what's the easiest way to help Wentz?

Run the ball. 

"We have a handful of backs who run hard and do some good things," Wentz said Tuesday. "It'll be interesting to see how that shakes out. But we believe no matter who's in the backfield, with the O-line we have and the guys up front, we should be dynamic up front. 

"We believe that will kind of be our bread and butter and we can lean on those guys, whoever's back there, hopefully, they'll get the job done and do it well."

Earlier this week, Reich touted the Eagles' run efficiency last season, claiming the team was fifth in 2016. He explained that run efficiency doesn't just take yards into account but also looks at how productive those yards were depending on the situation. 

While Reich said the rotation is starting to crystallize, it's still unclear what it will look like. It is clear Sproles and Pumphrey will get a bulk of their work in the passing game. Then it becomes a question of whether or not Blount is a short-yardage and goal line specialist or if he's also the guy who will run the ball between the 20s. He seems to think he is still a bell cow, but Smallwood has been extremely impressive when healthy in camp. 

"He's been looking good," Sproles said of Smallwood. "He got more comfortable with the offense now. He's looking good."

Meanwhile, Blount is coming off an 18-touchdown season and a Super Bowl victory. 

"[Blount] knows what it takes to win," Sproles said.  

The Eagles have three more games this preseason to figure out how they want to rotate their running backs, and it won't be easy considering the starters won't play much until the Dolphins game on Aug. 24.

This week against Buffalo offers the Eagles another chance to prove they're committed to running the football. 

Maybe that means Matt McGloin won't throw the ball 42 times. 

“You try to go into every game trying to establish [the run],” Pederson said. “You know, it was unfortunate the way the game kind of took off. But, yeah, the plan would be to try to get that established a little bit this week and see where it goes. I really feel like we've got a good offensive line that can handle that with the backs that we have. It's something that we'll try to focus on hopefully Thursday.”