Philadelphia Eagles positional reviews: Running back Wendell Smallwood trying to fill bigger role
Philly.com is looking at the Eagles’ 90-man roster over the next two weeks before they begin organized team activities on May 23.
Philly.com is looking at the Eagles' 90-man roster over the next two weeks before they begin organized team activities on May 23. Here's the schedule:
May 8: Wide receivers
May 9: Running backs
May 10: Offensive linemen
May 11: Tight ends
May 12: Defensive ends
May 15: Defensive tackles
May 16: Linebackers
May 17: Cornerbacks
May 18: Safeties
May 19: Quarterbacks
Spotlight on: Wendell Smallwood
For a fifth-round pick with modest expectations, Wendell Smallwood had a productive rookie season. But Smallwood didn't play enough – or well enough – to lock down a role as the Eagles' primary ball carrier for the 2017 season. However, that might be his job if the Eagles release Ryan Mathews and don't add a veteran running back before the season. More on that later.
Smallwood, who is 5-foot-10 and 208 pounds, finished 2016 with 77 carries for 312 yards and one touchdown. He missed the final three games with a knee injury.
His best game came in Week 3 against Pittsburgh, when he rushed 17 times for 79 yards and his lone touchdown while helping close out the blowout. He also averaged 5.4 yards per on 13 carries in a November win over Atlanta. (While pointing out the good games, one cannot disregard a costly fumble late a loss to Dallas while the Eagles held a lead.) So he showed promise, but he's in the spotlight because he will have an opportunity to take on a bigger role this summer.
"We've got to make sure he's 100 percent, physically, and ready to go there," coach Doug Pederson said. "I think Wendell has a role on this football team. It's something that we saw glimpses of last season when he had a chance to play, and we just expect him to come in, compete, work and put himself in a position to help us again this year."
Smallwood's strength is his burst through the hole. He can work on making defenders miss or breaking tackles. He averaged 2.2 yards after contact last season, according to Pro Football Focus. That was the worst average among the Eagles' top three running backs last year. He's shown that he can be part of a committee, but can he be more than that? This summer could offer the answer.
On the 53-man roster: Darren Sproles
Sproles played 45 percent of the Eagles' offensive snaps in 2016, the most snaps he's logged since the data was made available in 2012. That was also the highest of any of running back on the roster. Despite the perception that he's a role player, Sproles was the Eagles' top running back even though he did not lead the team in carries. (His 94 carries set a career high.) Sproles returns for his age 34 season, and it will likely be his final year in the NFL. Don't be surprised if he takes on a similar workload this season. Even though he's 5-foot-6, Sproles has averaged 4.9 yards per carry in his career and averaged 4.7 yards last season. And he was best in short-yardage situations, averaging 5.2 yards per carry when there were 1-3 yards to go. So even if he's not a traditional workhorse running back, Sproles is in line to continue being the most-played running back for the Eagles, and the goal could be around 150 offensive touches.
What could change the playing time distribution is the addition of a potential No. 1 running back. There are a few teams that added running backs this offseason who could make returning players available for the right price: New Orleans (Mark Ingram), Cincinnati (Jeremy Hill), Jacksonville (T.J. Yeldon), and Washington (Matt Jones). Some fit better than others, and the price might be high in some cases, and time will tell if the Eagles pursue an additional player.
On the 53-man bubble: Ryan Mathews, Byron Marshall
Mathews is recovering from a neck injury, which has precluded the Eagles from making a roster move with him. The team has said in all public comments that they can see him on the roster this season, but money will ultimately talk. Mathews counts for $5 million against the cap in 2017, turns 30 in October, is coming off a major injury, and has played 16 games just once in his career. For as productive as he's been when healthy, it seems more likely that he will be released when the team is able to do so. (If he's on the roster, he would factor in as the lead rusher.)
Marshall is a running back/wide receiver hybrid who spent most of last season on practice squad. He played well in the Week 17 win over Dallas, rushing 10 times for 46 yards. He finished with 19 carries for 64 yards and three catches for 10 yards last season. But the 2016 undrafted free agent could have a tough time making the team with the addition of Donnel Pumphrey. There is some duplication with skill set, although Marshall should get a chance this summer to show his receiving ability.
The Eagles released Terrell Watson last week and let Kenjon Barner leave in free agency. Those were the two other roster holdovers.
Draft picks: Donnel Pumphrey
Pumphrey is a wild card when trying to determine how playing time will be distributed. The 5-8, 176-pound fourth-round pick rushed for more yards than any running back in FBS history (6,405) and took 204 more carries than any player in college football during the past four years. So he's been productive and durable despite his size, and the Eagles liked him enough to make him the lone running back they selected in a deep class. He'll be part of a running back committee this season, likely as a receiver and a rusher. It's tough to know exactly how much he'll be used until he's on the field, but he's someone who is likely to be active on game days – unless the Eagles add a running back at some point before camp and the rotation changes.
The Eagles will announce the undrafted free agents this week, but Wisconsin's Corey Clement will be on the list, according to a source. The Glassboro native brings size (5-10, 220 pounds) and was a consistent player for the Badgers last season. If the Eagles don't add a veteran running back, Clement could be in good position to make the team because he's different than the other running backs on the roster and was a priority free agent.