Who will be the Eagles' next Brian Westbrook? | Paul Domowitch
The Birds are looking for players who can be productive as both a running back and a receiver.
THE EAGLES' signing of 245-pound running back LeGarrette Blount last month got a lot of attention, both locally and nationally.
He gives the Eagles a punishing runner who should make them more effective this season in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
The Eagles finished 11th in the NFL in rushing last year (113.3 yards per game), but only 23rd in first-down percentage on run plays with three yards or less to go (61.0 percent).
All that said, unless coach Doug Pederson plans to completely reconfigure his offense, don't look for the 30-year-old Blount to come anywhere close to matching the career highs he had last season with the Patriots in rushing attempts (299) and snaps (527).
That's not to suggest he won't be an important part of their offense. It just means you shouldn't expect him to be on the field for 47 percent of the Eagles' offensive plays this season as he was with New England last year.
Pederson, like his mentor Andy Reid, favors versatile running backs who can be moved around the formation to create mismatches in the passing game.
"You look around the league and a lot of offenses are very versatile with running backs that can do dual roles," the Eagles coach said. "Obviously, they can run the ball and carry the ball from the backfield. But they can (also) give you a (player) who can create matchup problems as a receiver.
"The way the game is evolving and becoming more of a passing league, you look for guys that can do dual roles."
What Pederson would love to find is The Next Brian Westbrook. Westbrook was the prototypical dual-threat running back.
The Eagles got him in the third round of the 2002 draft because most teams viewed the 5-8, 200-pounder as a third-down back. Hell, even Reid wasn't sure at the time whether he was anything more than that.
He definitely was. In eight seasons with the Eagles, Westbrook racked up 9,785 rushing and receiving yards, the most in club history. He's third in rushing yards (5,995), third in receptions (426), and third in rushing and receiving touchdowns (66).
"The thing I love about this offense is you're able to move around in different situations and catch screen passes and all that type of stuff like Brian did," rookie Donnel Pumphrey said. "I mean, he made a living out of that type of stuff. Same with Darren (Sproles). He's made Pro Bowls because of that type of stuff. I'm looking forward to it all."
Pumphrey, the 5-8, 176-pounder out of San Diego State whom the Eagles selected in the fourth round of the draft in late April, is one of two young running backs on the Eagles' roster with a Westbrook-like skill set. The other is second-year man Byron Marshall.
This isn't to suggest that either of them will turn out to be anywhere near as productive as Westbrook was. It just means that Pederson is intrigued by their versatility and the many ways he might be able to use them, not only as runners, but to create mismatches in the passing game.
He has been cross-training the 5-9, 201-pound Marshall at both running back and wide receiver this spring. Marshall played both positions at Oregon, becoming the first player in Pac-12 history to rush for 1,000 yards and have 1,000 receiving yards.
"Having played both spots, you can understand a little more what defenses are doing, what coverages they're running," Marshall said.
"When I first started playing receiver, I had no idea what went into it. I thought I could run a route because I was athletic. I didn't really know the ins and outs of it. Even now, I still don't know fully. But every day is a learning experience."
A serious ankle injury early in his senior season caused Marshall to slip out of the draft. The Eagles ended up signing him last year as an undrafted free agent.
"It's fun," Marshall said of working at both running back and wide receiver. "You're able to bounce back and forth and be a mismatch out there on the field. I know Carson (Wentz) likes to look for those mismatches. Putting us out there in the slot against a linebacker is definitely an advantage for us."
Marshall spent most of last season on the Eagles' practice squad before getting promoted in December. In his NFL debut against Baltimore, he was tackled for a loss on three of his first four carries, then rebounded with a pair of impressive 12- and 10-yard runs that gave you a glimpse of his potential.
On the 12-yard run, he displayed LeSean McCoy-like cutback ability, completely faking out the Ravens' six-time Pro Bowl linebacker, Terrell Suggs.
"I had to get my legs under me (against Baltimore)," Marshall said. "I was overanxious and trying to do too much. I'd miss little things I should've done. I went back later and looked at the tape and I missed a lot.
"From the little playing time I got last year, I learned that I need to just stay patient, stay calm. This (playing football) is something I've been doing since I was 6. (I need to) have fun with it."
Marshall missed all of the Eagles' spring workouts last year because of the NFL's ridiculous rule prohibiting players from participating in workouts until after their school is finished with final exams, even if the player isn't even still enrolled in school, which Marshall wasn't. Oregon is one of a handful of schools in the country that still is on the quarter system and doesn't finish its spring semester until mid-June.
It also took time for Marshall to regain confidence in his injured ankle. He said he wasn't really back to 100 percent back until late in training camp.
"It took me a while just to trust it again," he said. "I might feel good doing drills, but to actually go out and play full speed, I'd think about it when I'd make a cut. It was kind of scary at times. But as camp went on, I felt more comfortable with it.
"I'm having fun now. I really enjoy this. We have a lot of good competition between the six of us (running backs) right now. I'm looking forward to getting better every day. It's easy to get cut in this league, but hard to get picked back up again."
@Pdomo Blog: philly.com/Eaglesblog