Chicken or the Egg? Eagles running back issues have more to do with personnel
Is Doug Pederson's lopsided play-calling the symptom for the run game woes or was it the front office's poor evaluations over the last two years?
Like Andy Reid calling for a shovel pass in the red zone, the Eagles' early-season woes at running back could have been projected from miles.
Entering the offseason with a clear need at the position, the front office waited until the draft to select a running back. Howie Roseman had called the 2017 class "historic" just a week prior, and thus raised the odds that he would select a tailback to Secretariat-at-Belmont levels.
Roseman dabbled with trading up or down for various prospects in the first three rounds, but ultimately moved up for Donnel Pumprey in the fourth round. If the vice president of football operations was correct about the draft's depth, the Eagles had a chance to snag a running back who could contribute as a rookie.
Roseman was right about one thing – the 2017 class could turn out to be a very special group. But he and personnel lieutenant Joe Douglas may have whiffed where it mattered most and that was deciphering which running back would have the greatest value. It is important to note, however, that missing at the position won't matter as much if defensive end Derek Barnett and cornerbacks Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas turn out to be quality starters.
But Pumphrey only made the roster as the fifth running back, and after being inactive for the season opener, was placed on season-ending injured reserve with a hamstring injury last week. It's far too early to give up on the San Diego State project, but of all the positions in football running back may be the one in which first impressions say the most.
It's a long and short-term problem because the Eagles waited until after they chose Pumphrey to sign a free agent, when in years past Roseman's practice had been typically to add a veteran to avoid pushing a need in the draft.
It wasn't at the time an egregious oversight. Running back has increasingly become one of the less valuable positions in the NFL, and a thin field coupled with the popularity of one-year contracts this offseason, meant that the Eagles didn't have to rush to sign a running back.
Twenty-six-year-old Latavius Murray signed the richest deal at three years, $15 million, but established running backs like Adrian Peterson (two years, $7 million) and Jamal Charles (one year, $2.5 million) had to wait until April and May to find homes.
LeGarrette Blount signed his one-year, $1.25 million deal with the Eagles on May 17 only a few weeks after Charles, but he was still among the last bold-faced names to get snatched up, despite his 1,000-plus-yard, 18-touchdown, Super Bowl-winning 2016.
Clearly, the rest of the league thought little of the 30-year old. The contract he signed suggested the Eagles didn't think much, either. But with only Darren Sproles and Wendell Smallwood returning, the Eagles entered the season expecting Blount to at least shoulder one-third of the workload.
But after he rushed for 46 yards on 14 carries in the opener against the Redskins, Blount was dropped to third on the depth chart at the Chiefs and played just six out of 72 snaps to Sproles' 50 and Smallwood's 14. Undrafted rookie Corey Clement also logged one snap.
"I still got a lot of confidence in him," coach Doug Pederson said of Blount on Monday after the Eagles fell to Kansas City, 27-20, "and we'll find ways to get him on the field."
Pederson had said before the season that his distribution of playing time would be handled on a week-to-week basis. He mentioned something about the Chiefs defensive front when asked about Blount's lesser role – he had one rush (for 1 yard) that was negated by a penalty – but that was mostly about why he called 56 pass plays to only 13 runs.
"We got roles for all the guys," Pederson said. "A lot of time when you're in these games like this and you struggle to run your core runs it becomes hard."
But Sproles had moderate success in the first half rushing seven times for 37 yards. He took only three more handoffs after the break – Smallwood had two carries – while Pederson had Wentz drop to throw 38 times. The pass-run disparity in the win at Washington was 45 to 20.
Which begs the question: Are the Eagles' run game issues – their backs are averaging just 3.2 yards a carry – a symptom of Pederson's play calling or of the poor evaluations made by the front office?
There isn't a big enough sample after two games to claim anything other than a combination of factors. But the Eagles added three running backs this offseason and the veteran (Blount) had zero carries in his second game, the drafted rookie (Pumphrey) won't contribute this year, and the undrafted rookie (Clement) is currently on the bottom of the depth chart.
Free agency was rife with potential landmines, so it's difficult to criticize the Eagles for passing on higher-priced veterans, although they doled out millions to two backup offensive linemen and a backup quarterback. Perhaps they could have identified a few cheaper alternatives like the Patriots, who added Rex Burkhead and restricted free agent Mike Gillislee.
But potentially missing out on a generational running back draft class could have repercussions beyond this year. Four of the NFL's leading rushers through Sunday are rookies – Kareem Hunt (third round), Dalvin Cook (second), Leonard Fournette (first round) and Chris Carson (seventh round).
And prospects like Christian McCaffrey (first round), Joe Mixon (second), Alvin Kamara (third), Samaje Perine (fourth), and Tarik Cohen (fourth) already have significant roles on their respective team's offenses.
The current Eagles regime wasn't responsible for trading away LeSean McCoy, or signing free agents DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews, but it had opportunities to upgrade their tailbacks over the last two years and the results haven't been promising.
Next year's draft is said to be deep at running back, as well. But that doesn't help the Eagles with 14 games left this season.