The NFL draft is just three days away and, predictably, there's a segment of Eagles fans hoping, wishing and begging that their favorite team will use one of its picks to take that "big running back."
Forget the fact that the Eagles ranked a respectable 11th in the league in rushing yards despite having the sixth-fewest rushing attempts in the league last season. (Note to Andy Reid, just in case he forgets to run the football next season: The five teams that had fewer rushing attempts than the Eagles - Oakland, Cleveland, Miami, Detroit and Tampa Bay - were a combined 19-61).
The Eagles' total rushing yards for the season weren't nearly as impressive as their rushing yards per play. Even without that "big running back," the Eagles managed to average 4.8 yards per rushing play. Only Atlanta (5.5), San Diego (4.9), Jacksonville (5.0), and San Francisco (5.0) did better.
The Eagles also ranked fifth in the league at converting third-down rushing attempts for first downs when they needed fewer than 3 yards, which, in theory, is the role best suited for the "big running back." The Eagles, when running the ball, converted 54.4 percent of the time on third and less than 3 yards, according to figures compiled by Stats.
Reid's team was productive at all these things for a number of reasons. Tied at the top of the list: Brian Westbrook and the big offensive line. Westbrook had his best season and missed just one game because of injury. The offensive line, which is probably more important than a "big running back," played exceptionally well, particularly after quarterback Donovan McNabb was lost for the season. Honorable mention: Correll Buckhalter. He was a solid second option behind Westbrook.
Presented with the above facts, a certain segment of Eagles fans will continue to insist that this team will never win a Super Bowl until it acquires that "big running back."
The Eagles, of course, haven't paid much attention to that segment of fans at draft time. Sure, Reid and general manager Tom Heckert have drafted some running backs, including Westbrook in the third round of the 2002 draft, Ryan Moats in the third round of the 2005 draft, and Buckhalter in the fourth round of the 2001 draft. They've even drafted a big back. Thomas Tapeh, weighing 243 pounds, was a fifth-round pick in 2004.
Westbrook has been a brilliant pick. Buckhalter has been good when healthy, but he has not been healthy nearly enough. Tapeh, after some initial debate about what role he'd play, has become the Eagles' fullback, but not a big, bruising ballcarrier.
The jury is out on Moats, and there have been rumblings that he may be moved for a late-round pick this weekend. Heckert insisted he still has confidence in Moats.
"We think Moats is a really good football player," the general manager said. "Unfortunately, he really hasn't played a whole lot. When he plays, he's productive. Obviously, Brian carried the ball a lot for us last year and we had Buck, so it was a tough situation to get him on the field. We still think highly of Ryan. It's not like we're trying to replace Ryan."
If they are trying to replace Moats, they aren't going to do it in the first round of this draft. Only Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson and California's Marshawn Lynch are projected as first-round picks at running back, and both will be gone by the time the Eagles make their selection, assuming they keep the 26th overall pick.
The later rounds, however, should offer some interesting options at running back for the Eagles, who certainly could use help there, particularly if they really are going to commit to the run even more in 2007. It probably would be advantageous to Westbrook's continued good health if the Eagles stopped making him leap tall buildings to get into the end zone as he did in games late last season.
As well as Buckhalter played, he was not a goal-line back. Neither are Moats, Tapeh, or anyone else on the roster, including 350-pound center Nick Cole.
Penn State's Tony Hunt, on the other hand, has the size (6-foot-11/2, 233 pounds) and quickness to be that "big back" who could help the Eagles.
"I like him," Heckert said. "He's not that flashy at all, but he's big and he's tough and he's productive."
Being from Penn State, he'd also be an enormously popular pick among most Eagles fans. Ditto for Brian Leonard, the Rutgers running back who has a good chance of being a first-day pick.
"He's a big back that can run," Heckert said. "He's not a pounder, but he's probably more elusive than Hunt. He's a better jack-of-all trades. I think he's a running back, but he can play fullback."
Leonard, 6-2 and 226 pounds could be taken as high as the third round.
What area represents the No. 1 need for the Eagles in the draft? Vote at http://go.philly.com/sportspoll.