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The case for and against running back with Eagles first draft pick

The case for and against running back with Eagles first draft pick

The debate over who the Eagles should take with the 14th-overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft is completely circumstantial. The selection will be based on any number of factors, from who's available, to need, and – to a certain degree – Howie Roseman's vision.

Even still, a running back in particular would be a somewhat controversial choice by the Eagles at No. 14. It would energize some fans while simultaneously flying in the face of beliefs held by others. Whether we’re talking about Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook or Christian McCaffery, the position has been "devalued" in many minds. There's a line of thinking that backs aren't worth such an investment because a) their careers are generally shorter and b) the perception they are easily replaced.

Those aren't the only rationales against, either. A high percentage of the top backs in the league weren't first-round picks, like Le'Veon Bell, David Johnson, LeSean McCoy and Devonta Freeman, for example. This 2017 draft class is said to have "historic" potential, so the odds of finding a player like that in the second or third round are as good as they will ever be. With or without that knowledge, the argument could be made the Eagles have more pressing needs to address at 14.

Quite honestly, these are all valid points to a degree. The case has been made against taking running backs early for years, and people are conditioned to treat it as a rule.

In 2017, the Eagles might be able to make an exception.

This is not necessarily to say the Eagles should go running back in the first round. It's impossible to predict what options the front office will be presented with on draft day, let alone over the course of the next five weeks, so it's not black and white. That being said, it wouldn’t hurt for the anti-running back crowd to keep an open mind, because there are a number of reasons that direction might make sense.
 

Maximize Carson Wentz

The Eagles just signed Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, who – along with Jordan Matthews and Zach Ertz – have the potential to form one of the most dynamic collections of targets in the league. The club also retained Jason Peters and Lane Johnson, plus beefed up the interior of the offensive line, all of which should go a long way toward providing the best possible pass protection available.

Clearly, the goal of this offseason has been to build around Carson Wentz, except there is still one area of the offense the Eagles have yet to address. Nothing was done at running back in free agency, and while there are a number of explanations as to why that would be, it would be ridiculous to come this far and not go all the way.

Wentz has more than enough in terms of both weapons and supporting cast to take the next step in his second season at the helm for the Eagles. Even at running back, there's the venerable Darren Sproles, if you can rely on no one else. Yet, this franchise traded a lot of picks for the opportunity to go get Wentz, and is spending a lot of money to surround him with talent in 2017. Why would there be any less attention paid to who joins him in the backfield?

Can the Eagles get by without spending a first on a back? Sure. Maybe the club strikes gold on day two, and assuming not, a committee approach isn’t uncommon around the NFL. Yet, if the goal is to get the absolute most out of Wentz, there’s no reason to skimp when it comes to the guy taking handoffs. Put the best possible player there and watch how much better off a 24-year-old quarterback will be for it.

Need

The simple answer here is the Eagles need a running back. Best case scenario, Ryan Mathews is a free agent in 2018, anyway – who knows if he's healthy and on the roster come September – and Sproles talks as if retirement is a strong possibility. Wendell Smallwood showed promise as a rookie, but 83 total touches for a fifth-round pick isn't nearly enough to start making any long-term plans.

Is running back a greater need for the Eagles than cornerback? Defensive line? Even wide receiver? The answer is subjective, and ultimately irrelevant. If Roseman is on the clock at No. 14, the best player available is a running back and there are no trades on the table, then there really isn't any room for bias against a particular position.

If there's a tie, fine, take the cornerback. But whether it's the first round or the seventh, the Eagles have to prepare for the possibility they won’t have any proven ball carriers on the roster come this time next year. At a certain point, it's kind of hard to complain about filling a glaring hole with a tremendous talent, even if it is at odds with your philosophy on team building.

The missing piece?

We don't want to fall into the trap of thinking every top running back prospect is Ezekiel Elliott, but it is hard to ignore how a dominant running back brought everything together for the Cowboys in 2016.

Elliott led the NFL in rushing as a rookie, finishing over 300 yards ahead of the runner-up, and the Cowboys wound up finishing as NFC East champions with a 13-3 record. Yes, a lot of the pieces were already in place before the back’s arrival, including weapons in the passing game, a dominant run-blocking offensive line and an impressive, young quarterback. Elliott was the cherry on top.

The Cowboys weren't the only team to lean on their running back in '16. The Steelers rode Le'Veon Bell into the playoffs. The Patriots handed the football to LeGarrette Blount almost 300 times and led the league with 18 touchdowns on the ground. For all the talk of the NFL being a passing league where everybody has highly specialized, committee backfields, the feature back made something of a return last season.

In each case, the running back alone wasn't the reason for the success – Todd Gurley carried the ball a lot, too, but you didn't see the Rams in the playoffs. The Cowboys, Steelers and Patriots all have a quarterback, first and foremost, along with a decent supporting cast.

However, those situations are great examples of how a strong running back can complement a quarterback and an offense. When the game was on the line, it didn’t always fall on Dak Prescott, Ben Roethlisberger or Tom Brady to make something happen. Oftentimes, they could hand it off.

Wentz is going to make a leap in his second season regardless. He's surrounded by weapons and has a deep offensive line in front of him. But if the Eagles intend to reach the next level as a team in 2017, the best thing they could do is bring somebody in who will reduce Wentz's workload and take some of the pressure off of the quarterback to do everything.

Kennett Square's Jack Regenye makes catch of the year at Junior League World Series

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USA Today Images

Kennett Square's Jack Regenye makes catch of the year at Junior League World Series

Sunday gave us the catch of the year. And it didn't come from MLB, or the minors, but from Kennett Square, Pennsylvania's Jack Regenye in the Junior League World Series.

Just take a look at this. Then watch it again and again, trying to figure out how this is possible. 

After being initially ruled an out, the umps reversed the call, calling it a home run. After more deliberation, it was finally ruled an out because rules be damned, when a catch is that good, you have to count it.

Regenye's Junior League team (ages 13-14) went on to lose to Chinese Taipei, 12-1. 

With Odubel Herrera on the DL, maybe the Phils should give Regenye a call.

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.