In Howie Roseman’s eight previous years as either Eagles general manager or executive vice president he didn’t sign a single unrestricted free agent running back between the start of the NFL year and the draft. And during that span, Roseman engineered only one trade for a running back – dealing for Darren Sproles in 2014.
The Eagles have yet to acquire a running back again this offseason, and while it remains their biggest need, Roseman’s past and the relative weak market for running backs suggests that the next month will look a lot like the previous week-and-a-half of inactivity.
It could be said that if there was an offseason to finally sign a running back in the first week of free agency it was this year. The Eagles had one of the worst rushing offenses in the NFL last season and they currently have the fifth-least amount of money in the league devoted to the position this year and next.
The Eagles had targeted one running back only to see him slip away in the early days of free agency. There are still some notable names left and another swap is a possibility, but with the Eagles down to seven draft picks this year, and with a team premium placed on next year’s compensatory picks, a pre-draft signing or trade is looking less likely.
Which could have Roseman selecting a running back in April’s draft, perhaps as high as the first three rounds for the first time in his tenure.
The Eagles – aside from Chip Kelly’s disastrous one year in charge of personnel – have long devalued the running back position. In many ways, they were ahead of the curve and they made the correct assessment in terms of their own talent and the cost effectiveness of running backs vs. other positions.
But Roseman’s track record, both in expenditure and evaluation, has been dubious, at best. The greatest results he garnered came two years ago when LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi were acquired after the draft and became the Eagles’ leading rushers in their Super Bowl season. His running back decisions, however, have been mostly a mixed bag of decent to dreadful.
Roseman’s lack of movement from 2010-13 had a lot to do with having LeSean McCoy on the roster. The only pre-draft acquisition during those four years was the prying of restricted free agent Mike Bell from the Saints in 2010, and the Eagles would rather forget that unfortunate transaction.
When Roseman returned to personnel in 2016, the dearth of pre-draft running back additions continued. McCoy, who had been dealt to the Bills by Kelly, was no longer on the roster. Roseman was left to clean up the resulting mess. He traded the disappointing DeMarco Murray, but kept Ryan Mathews as the lead tailback.
A year later, Mathews was gone. But Roseman stood pat, at least in terms of free agency, until after the draft. He signed Blount on May 18. And when Sproles suffered a season-ending injury in September, he dealt for Ajayi a month later in exchange for a fourth-round draft pick.
Ajayi’s return in 2018 kept the Eagles from doing much last offseason. They did re-sign Sproles to a one-year deal as the draft wound down and it became apparent they wouldn’t select a running back. But Ajayi was lost for the season to a torn ACL after four games and Sproles was sidelined by a hamstring strain for most of the year.
Corey Clement, before he also suffered a season-ending ACL injury, Wendell Smallwood, and undrafted rookie Josh Adams thus carried the load and had a few bright moments. But the Eagles finished the season ranked 27th in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) in rushing offense, despite having one of the NFL’s better offensive lines and schemes.
Not only did the rushing numbers suggest the need for a makeover, but the Eagles have literally zero dollars guaranteed to running backs in 2019, and would lose only around $65,000 in dead money if they were to turn over the entire position.
Ajayi and Sproles are free agents and remain unsigned. The former’s bad knees make his return unlikely. The latter’s age – he’ll be 36 in June – and recent injury woes will place him, best-case scenario, on the backburner.
Clement, Smallwood, and Adams, along with Donnel Pumphrey and Boston Scott, will likely return this spring, but no one is guaranteed a roster spot.
With the slate essentially clean, the Eagles seemingly had the motive to finally sign a free agent. Le’Veon Bell was out of their price range, but they had set their sights on free agent Tevin Coleman, NFL sources close to the situation said. Running backs coach Duce Staley, in fact, had the former Falcon rated as his top free agent.
But Roseman, for whatever the reason, couldn’t nail down Coleman. Money couldn’t have been a factor. Coleman’s contract with the 49ers was for only two years, $8.5 million, with only $5.25 million guaranteed. His preference may have been to play for Kyle Shanahan, his former offensive coordinator in Atlanta, but coinage is typically the ultimate deciding factor.
Mark Ingram, who signed a three-year, $15 million deal with the Ravens, was another viable consideration, but there aren’t many obvious fits for the Eagles in free agency. Spencer Ware, T.J. Yeldon, Isaiah Crowell, and Bilal Powell are still available, but there shouldn’t be a rush at this point.
The Eagles could have competitors for the Browns’ Duke Johnson or the Bears’ Jordan Howard in a trade, but are they willing to forfeit a late-round pick for running backs who are available for a reason?
The draft isn’t as strong up top at running back as it’s been in recent years, but there’s supposedly depth in the middle rounds. The Eagles have two picks in the second round and two in the fourth.
Roseman’s record in drafting running backs hasn’t been good. He traded his best pick -- Dion Lewis in 2011 – to the Browns in 2013 for linebacker Emmanuel Acho. Charles Scott (2010) and Bryce Brown (2012) failed to pan out, although Roseman gets credit for parlaying the latter’s brief success into a trade for a fourth-rounder. Smallwood (2016) has been fine, but Pumphrey (2017) has been a bust.