ALONG THE STRETCH of lockers that houses the Eagles' running backs at the NovaCare Complex, Byron Marshall and Terrell Watson are the end of the line. The setup yielded a striking intersection of figurative and literal truth on Wednesday afternoon as reporters sauntered toward the back end of the room to introduce themselves to the players who are the next men up at a position where such an honor has mostly meant being the next man down this year.
Heading into Sunday's season finale against the Cowboys, the committee of backs the Eagles have leaned on looks more like the inside of a covered wagon after a particularly brutal winter on the Oregon Trail. Three of the four running backs the Eagles carried into the season on their active roster - Ryan Mathews, Kenjon Barner and Wendell Smallwood - are on injured reserve. The fourth, 33-year-old Darren Sproles, has never carried the ball more than 93 times in a season, a number he has an outside chance at reaching despite having missed part of one game and all of another with an injury. As it stands, his 85 carries are the third-most of his career, and his most since 2011, when he had 87 for the Saints.
While all of this is good news for a couple of undrafted longshots like Marshall and Watson, who have spent a combined three weeks on an active NFL roster (all of them Marshall's), the situation is a lot more tenuous when you start to look at the long list of positions the Eagles must bolster before anyone takes them seriously as a playoff contender.
If you've followed the NFL for at least the last decade, you know that the conventional wisdom regarding the depth chart at running back has undergone a dramatic transformation. In 2005, the year Sproles entered the league as a fourth-round draft pick of the Chargers, 11 running backs finished the regular season averaging at least 20 carries per game, with names like Rudi Johnson, and Domanick Williams mixed in with stars like Edgerrin James (24 attempts per game) and Shaun Alexander (23.1 per game). That April's draft had seen three running backs selected in the top five, and the following April's saw Reggie Bush go to the Saints at No. 2 overall in a first round that also produced Laurence Maroney, DeAngelo Williams and Joseph Addai.
This year, only two running backs entered Week 17 averaging at least 20 carries per game, one of whom is the man the Eagles will be attempting to tackle come Sunday. When the Cowboys drafted Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick, it marked the first time since 2012 a team had addressed the position inside the top five, and just the third time in those four drafts that a running back went anywhere in the first round (Todd Gurley at No. 10 overall and Melvin Gordon at No. 15 overall, both in 2015). Elliott's performance this season - he enters Sunday averaging 21.5 carries, 108.7 yards, and one touchdown per game (322-1,631-15) for a Dallas team that has already clinched the NFC's No. 1 seed - has left little room for second-guessing. And though it won't, and shouldn't, undermine the logic that has devalued the running back position (more passing + shorter careers + more early-round salary-cap value at harder-to-fake positions), it does serve as a reminder of the benefit that a durable, powerful, every-down back can have for an offense, especially one led by a young quarterback.
Unlike the Cowboys, who had a road-grading offensive line that could maximize Elliot's utility and a fleet of skill position players that was nearly complete, the Eagles probably aren't in a position to prioritize the acquisition of a running back position this offseason. But they need to do something. Mathews will lead the team in rushing at 155 carries for 661 yards, but that's an average of just 11.9 attempts and 50.8 yards per game. Sproles has averaged 6.1 attempts and 29 yards, and Smallwood 5.9 attempts and 24 yards. All three are under contract for next season, but that doesn't help if they can't stay on the field. Mathews has battled injuries throughout his career and was in and out of the Eagles' rotation all season because of health. Smallwood missed most of training camp with an injury and is now back on the shelf. When the Eagles needed a game-winning two-point conversion against the Ravens two weeks ago, it was the undrafted Marshall who lined up in the backfield.
There are no easy answers at the position, particularly with so many other needs to address in the draft. Doug Pederson has been complimentary of Smallwood this season, but what else would he say?
"He's learning the game," the head coach said of the fuifth-round rookie earlier this month, before his season-ending knee injury. "He's learning how to be patient in the run game. Using his eyes more than his God-given ability, which is obviously great, and he keeps working every day. Again, it's a learning process."
Even when healthy, Smallwood looked a bit too small, too upright, too ordinary to pencil into the depth chart for years to come (nothing like the back the Bears seem to have found in their fifth-round pick, Jordan Howard). The best the Eagles might be able to do is to move on from Mathews and look for a similarly priced veteran who can stay on the field. There might not be a solution. But there is definitely a problem to address.