With Brian Westbrook providing all manner of sprinkles in the featured role, no one could say the Eagles' running backs were plain vanilla in 2006. But, with the addition of Tony Hunt, the big, physical back who rushed for 1,386 yards as a Penn State senior, coach Andy Reid might be ready to again scoop out the touches in a flavorful variety.
"He gives us another flavor back there, a bit of a changeup," Reid said of the 6-2, 230-pound Hunt, whom the Eagles selected in the third round, the 90th pick overall. "Tony Hunt is a big back. He was MVP of the Senior Bowl and we all know him from Penn State and the career he had there."
Although Reid is dropping hints of a running back free-for-all, with holdovers Correll Buckhalter and Ryan Moats also in the mix, it's more likely that Hunt and Buckhalter, an Eagles rookie in 2001 who has missed three full seasons (2002, '04, '05) recovering from injuries, will vie for the role of primary supporting player to Westbrook, who wasn't named to the Pro Bowl last season but should have been. He rushed for 1,217 yards and seven touchdowns, and caught 77 passes for 699 yards and scoring four touchdowns.
When Westbrook was drafted in the third round out of Villanova in 2002, his size - he's just 5-8 and 203 pounds - dictated that he probably would be used more as a change-of-pace back, a third-down specialist who could rush a few times a game, catch passes out of the backfield and return kicks as needed.
Westbrook was part of the Eagles' "three-headed monster" running-back rotation with Buckhalter and Duce Staley in 2003, when the threesome combined to rush for 1,618 yards. But Staley left via free agency to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Buckhalter spent the next two seasons on injured reserve and Westbrook proved that he was good enough, and sturdy enough, to be an every-down back.
But the NFL is nothing if not trendy, with one team's successes likely to be replicated by others, if possible. And the latest fad to have emerged is the thunder-and-lightning backfield, in which two running backs with different styles alternate, the better to keep both men fresh over the course of a game and a physically demanding 16-game season.
The Indianapolis Colts defeated the Chicago Bears, 29-17, in Super Bowl XLI behind running backs Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes, who combined for 190 yards rushing and 74 more yards on receptions.
Eagles fans, however, are more likely to remember the tandem of New Orleans running backs Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush. McAllister and Bush gouged the Birds for 237 yards and three touchdowns in a 27-24 divisional playoff victory for the Saints, with the 6-1, 232-pound McAllister accounting for 163 of those, including 143 on 21 carries.
Since then there has been a school of thought that a big, punishing back was needed to move the sticks on those crucial short-yardage plays, and to help save the electrifying Westbrook from wearing down.
Enter Hunt, the first Penn State player to be drafted by the Eagles since tight end Tony Stewart was picked in the fifth round in 2001.
"I feel like I'm a big back," Hunt said. "I think that's why they drafted me. Hopefully, I can bring something to the table that the team is looking for . . .
"I just go after the yards that other guys kind of don't want to get."
Oddly enough, in a draft in which the Eagles did almost nothing that any of the so-called draft experts expected, Hunt is the one pick that isn't really much of a surprise. Several mock drafts had him going to the Eagles in the third round.
Hunt likely fell on some teams' draft boards after he ran a subpar time in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
"Yeah, I think that's the truth," Hunt said. "I kind of knew that that would be the case."
However, Reid said that did not concern him.
"I look for good football players," Reid said. "If the '40' time meant that much, then Duce Staley wouldn't have been the great running back that he has been. I want guys that can play football." *