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."