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."

Despite historically low receiving numbers, Eagles could involve LeGarrette Blount

Despite historically low receiving numbers, Eagles could involve LeGarrette Blount

No running back in the last 35 years has had more seasons with 10 or fewer catches.

No running back in the last 60 years has had more career rushing yards without catching 50 passes.

No running back in NFL history has had more seasons with 700 or more rushing yards and seven or fewer receptions.

It's just something LeGarrette Blount has never done.

Blount, the Eagles' high-profile offseason running back acquisition, is one of only three players in NFL history with 5,000 or more rushing yards and fewer than 50 career receptions.

The others are both former Eagles — Steve Van Buren, who ran for 5,860 yards but caught 45 passes, and Michael Vick, who ran for 6,109 yards in his career and caught two passes.

Blount has 5,122 career rushing yards but just 46 receptions. He did somehow catch 15 passes for the Buccaneers back in 2011, but the last five years he's averaged just 5.2 catches per season.

For the sake of comparison, during the four-year stretch from 2004 through 2007, Brian Westbrook averaged 5.5 receptions per game.

Blount's biggest years have been 2010 and 2011 with the Buccaneers and 2013 and 2016 with the Patriots.

His rushing totals those four years: 1,007, 781, 772 and 1,161 yards.

His receiving totals those years: Five, two, six and seven catches.

Four times in his career Blount has rushed for more touchdowns than he's had receptions.

In eight career playoff games, Blount has caught one pass. For eight yards. 

Blount has never had more than three catches in a game.

So now that we've established that no running back in modern NFL history has been less of a weapon as a receiver, let's try to figure out where Blount fits in here.

Eagles running backs have historically been pass catchers, not just in the Andy Reid offense run by Reid and Doug Pederson but under Rich Kotite, Ray Rhodes and even Buddy Ryan.

Only Chip Kelly didn't like to throw to the backs.

In fact, in the last 30 years, the Eagles have had 23 backs rush for 700 or more yards. Only three of those had fewer than 40 catches -- Earnest Jackson in 1985 (10), Herschel Walker in 1992 (38) and LeSean McCoy in 2014 (career-low 28).

Blount has an NFL-record four seasons with 100 or more carries and seven or fewer catches.

The last Eagle running back to do that was Ken Keller in 1956.

All of which takes us to 2017.

Blount is here, in an offense where the backs have to catch the football.

The Eagles have two options. Don't play him on passing downs. Or use the preseason to assimilate Blount into the passing game for the first time in his life.

"I think it's going to surprise a few people," running backs coach Duce Staley said. "He can catch the ball. Sent him on a couple wheel routes a couple times (during OTAs) and he beat the linebacker. He was open, and he can catch the ball in the flat, and I'd love to get him some screens set up to where he can get that big body going north. He can scare some people."

Blount said the only reason he's never caught a lot of passes is that he's never been asked to catch passes.

He's a classic straight-ahead power runner who's been used that way every stop of his career.

"I don’t too much pay attention to what fans think about my skill set," he said.

"I know what I can do. They know what I can do. If it’s called for me to catch the ball, I do. I don’t drop passes. Whatever it is (they want me) to do, I’m going to do it.

"We have a good pass-catcher in 43 (Darren Sproles), but if I need to do it, then I will do it."

Head coach Doug Pederson knows that if any running back doesn't get involved in the running game, the offense gets predictable when he's on the field.

He said he liked what he's seen of Blount in the passing game during the four weeks of minicamps.

"Yeah, he's actually a pretty good pass catcher," Pederson said. "When you watch him at practice and in some of the drills that we've put him in, he's pretty smooth.

"Maybe he doesn't have the numbers and all that, and he hasn’t been used that way, but I'm very comfortable putting him in situations where we can throw him the ball."

Rethinking retirement, Darren Sproles mentoring Eagles' young RBs at OTAs

Rethinking retirement, Darren Sproles mentoring Eagles' young RBs at OTAs

As last season was coming to a close, with the Eagles set to miss the playoffs for a third straight year, Darren Sproles sounded resigned to retiring following the 2017 campaign. Now that it's May and the Eagles have a new lease on life, suddenly Sproles isn't quite convinced this year will be his finale in the NFL after all.

"We're gonna see," Sproles said in the locker room after practice Monday. "Right after we make the playoffs, then come back and ask me."

Sproles never said 2017 was definitely going to be his last but admitted there was mounting pressure from his family, specifically his two daughters. Five months later, he's joining the Eagles for organized training activities at the NovaCare Complex, a voluntary offseason program he chose to skip a year ago.

"[The Eagles] wanted me here for the young guys, so they could learn from me," Sproles said. "I said, 'Yeah, that's fine.'"

Sproles came into the league with the San Diego Chargers in 2005 and benefited from mentors such as Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson and two-time Pro Bowler Michael Turner. Now the 13-year veteran wants to "give back" and set a similar example for his Eagles teammates.

“The main thing I tell them — it's really just the more you can do," Sproles said. "You want to show them you can catch punts, you can catch kickoffs, you can play receiver. It's just the more you can do. You'll be in this league a long time."

No doubt, the Eagles are hoping fourth-round draft pick Donnel Pumphrey can shadow Sproles and pick up a thing or two to help speed up his development this offseason. The rookie out of San Diego State is being groomed for a similar role as a "move" player who can take handoffs out of the backfield or line up at wide receiver.

"We want to get him in space," Sproles said. "We get him in space, he can do some things for us."

In addition to Pumphrey, the Eagles also have Wendell Smallwood and Byron Marshall entering their second season, as well as undrafted rookie Corey Clement. There are a lot of eager young minds in the running backs room.

Fortunately, Sproles is not alone. The addition of LeGarrette Blount in May puts the Eagles in the rare position of having two backs on the roster in their thirties who can impart wisdom and share their knowledge with up-and-coming players.

"They ask you a lot of questions, so we try to tell them whatever they want to know," Sproles said. "That's the good thing about having us in the room."

Sproles also believes Blount can play a pivotal role for the Eagles on the field.

"We need to close games out," Sproles said. "You need that pounder to keep the clock moving, keep the chains moving. He can do that."

While Sproles is focused on teaching the young guys and making the playoffs, he's also taken time to reflect on the career. Whether 2017 is his last season or not, the time to call it quits is approaching.

Sproles admits he has a different perspective now and is trying to enjoy his time at OTAs. With his 34th birthday approaching on June 20 and this being the final year of his contract with the Eagles, he also has goals on how he wants to walk away from the game.

"You don't want to be forced out," Sproles said. "You want to leave on your own terms.

“Once you get over 30 in this league, they try to kick you out.”

So far, the Eagles have shown no desire to give Sproles the boot. In fact, his 94 carries in 2016 were a career high, and he finished with 865 total yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns. The three-time Pro Bowl selection averaged 13.2 yards per punt return as well.

Of course, Sproles is essentially training his potential replacement with the Eagles in Pumphrey. As long as Sproles continues to produce at that clip, he should have no problem finding work in the NFL, regardless of age.