Eagles Offseason Overview: Running Backs
EAGLES POSITIONAL REVIEWS
During the next two weeks, The Inquirer will preview the Eagles' offseason. Free agency begins on March 10, and the draft is April 30-May 2.
Mon, March 2: Defensive line; Tues., March 3: Outside linebacker; Wed., March 4: Inside linebacker; Thurs., March 5: Cornerback; Fri., March 6: Safeties
The Eagles have four running backs under contract: LeSean McCoy, Darren Sproles, Matthew Tucker, and Kenjon Barner.
McCoy, who will be 27 next season, rushed for 1,319 yards in 2014. Even though his production dipped from his league-leading 2013 campaign, it was still the second best rushing total of his career. He is heavily featured in Kelly's offense, averaging 313 carries during the past two seasons. So why was there talk at the end of the season that he might not return? Well, it comes down to money. McCoy is due $11.95 million next season – that's a hefty salary, especially for a team that needs to allocate money elsewhere and at a position that has become relatively devalued.
Still, it's not an unreasonable salary for a player of his production and his age. It's not restrictive, and frankly, there are other players on the roster who would be better candidates to restructure than McCoy. My guess is McCoy is back, unless the Eagles use him as an asset in a trade.
One running back who you can count on returning is Sproles, who is due $4.1 million next season. If the Eagles cut him, they would only save $600,000 against the cap. So expect another year of Sproles, who made his first Pro Bowl at age 31. He was a dynamo early in the season, although Sproles was used less in the offense as the season progressed. Nearly one third of Sproles' offensive touches came in the first three weeks of the season; 43.7 percent of his offensive yards came in that span. Teams started double-teaming him, but I'm curious to see whether the Eagles can find different ways to free him up in 2015 – and whether he and McCoy can play on the field together.
Tucker had a nice preseason and has been with the Eagles either on the roster or on practice squad for two seasons. At 6-foot-1 and 227 pounds, he presents the Eagles with a physical rusher. But he was behind a crowded depth chart and could not crack the 53.
Barner played for Kelly at Oregon and was acquired via trade last season. He did not make the roster, but joined the practice squad in November. A full offseason could help him, and he will compete for the kick return job.
Chris Polk is a restricted free agent. The Eagles like Polk, who is a strong rusher and productive special teams player. He's someone that can take a bigger role in the offense, although the knock on him is his durability. Polk missed time with injuries in each of his three NFL seasons.
The Eagles will likely tender Polk, and maybe a team comes after him. But Polk is a likely candidate to return with an increased salary. Even if the Eagles don't assign a draft-pick tender, they can match an offer sheet.
So the question is whether the Eagles keep their top three backs, add a fourth, or give Tucker/Barner a chance. The Eagles kept three running backs last season, but they had four through much of 2013.
FREE AGENT OPTIONS
This is a good class of free-agent running backs, but I wouldn't expect the Eagles to do anything unless something happens with one of their returning rushers. The top free agent running back is Dallas' DeMarco Murray, who led the NFL in rushing last season.Baltimore's Justin Forsett and New Orleans' Mark Ingram are also coming off Pro Bowl seasons. I don't expect the Eagles to get involved with them.
The running back that would be the best fit is Buffalo's C.J. Spiller. The Eagles actually pursued Spiller last offseason before acquiring Sproles. Spiller, who will be 28 next season, has the versatility that the Eagles like and has averaged 5 yards per carry during his career. He is coming off an injury-plagued season, but will still draw a good market -- and there will be interested teams that will ofer more playing time than Philadelphia (unless the Eagles traded McCoy).
This is a good year to draft a running back. The class is especially deep, and a team can find a productive back even in the middle rounds.
The top two running backs in the class are Georgia's Todd Gurley (6-1, 222) and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon (6-1, 215). Either could be first-round picks. Gurley is coming off a torn ACL – otherwise, he'd be discussed as one of the best players in the draft. Gordon rushed for 2,587 yards and 29 touchdowns last season and has drawn comparisons to Marshawn Lynch.
The next group includes Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah (5-9, 205), Boise State's Jay Ajayi (6-0, 221), Miami's Duke Johnson (5-9, 207), and Indiana's Tevin Coleman (5-11, 206). They could all be second-round picks.
Abdullah is a natural for the Eagles' scheme, can catch the ball out of the backfield, and is a high-character player. He had the best vertical jump, broad jump, three-cone drill, and 20-yard shuttle of any running back at the combine. That athletic ability should overshadow a 4.6-second 40-yard dash. Johnson has similar size and production, although there are some injury concerns with him. Coleman didn't work out at the combine because of a foot injury, but has good size and versatility. I like Ajayi, who is a would get more attention in a different year.
Some other running backs to watch is Alabama's T.J. Yeldon (6-1, 226), USC's Javorius Allen (6-0, 221), and Michigan State's Jeremy Langford (6-0, 228). Langford's 4.42-second 40-yard dash was the fastest of any running back, and he was versatile enough to play wide receiver and cornerback for the Spartans.
With so much talent at this position, the Eagles could find multiple times in draft – especially in the middle rounds – where a running back nears the top of their board. Considering Sproles' age and McCoy's usage/contract, the Eagles might invest in the position. But it's not a priority entering the offseason unless the team moves on from McCoy or Sproles.