Eagles Position Review: Philadelphia Needs A New Lead Running Back

Position-by-position breakdown of the Eagles’ 2016 roster.

Kenjon Barner, Ryan Mathews, and Darren Sproles. (Jeff Fusco)

Kenjon Barner, Ryan Mathews, and Darren Sproles. (Jeff Fusco)

The 2017 NFL offseason has begun for the Philadelphia Eagles, which means Howie Roseman, Joe Douglas, and Doug Pederson will spend the next couple of weeks evaluating the 2016 roster. The team went 7-9 last season and improvement is clearly needed. By the time NFL free agency starts on March 9, the Eagles will have a good idea of which players they’ll want to bring back for the 2017 season. Today we’ll continue this offseason review series by looking at the running back position. [Quarterback]

THE PLAYERS

Ryan Mathews

Numbers: 287 snaps, 155 attempts, 661 yards, 4.3 yards per attempt, 8 rushing touchdowns, 13 receptions, 115 receiving yards, 8.8 yards per reception, 1 receiving touchdown, 3 fumbles

Review: The 2016 season did nothing to shake the book on Mathews. The former first-round pick is a talented player who runs hard, gets hurt a lot, and has trouble protecting the football. Mathews’ biggest mistake of the season cost the Eagles a win to the Lions in Week 4. His fumble late in the game against Detroit blew a win that Philadelphia virtually had wrapped up.

Mathews also had an egregiously bad fumble against the Vikings late in the game. Fortunately for the Eagles, the game was already out of reach for their opponent. Still, there was no reason for Mathews to be so reckless with the ball at that point in the game. It showed he couldn’t be trusted and the Eagles only gave him a combined nine carries in their next two games.

The Eagles went back to relying on Mathews and his big performance helped Philadelphia earn a victory over the Falcons. But then he got hurt again and missed a few weeks. He came back and put up his best rushing game of the season against the Ravens’ top-ranked run defense: 20 attempts for 128 yards (6.4 yards/attempt) and one rushing touchdown.

But then Mathews got hurt again. The veteran running back finished the season with a herniated disc in his neck. Pederson said it’s not career-threatening, but surgery was needed.

Darren Sproles

Numbers: 511 snaps, 94 rushing attempts, 438 rushing yards, 4.7 yards per attempt, 2 rushing touchdowns, 52 receptions, 427 receiving yards, 8.2 yards per reception, 2 receiving touchdowns, 1 fumble

Review: After posting some of the worst rate numbers of his career in 2015, there was concern Sproles might be done. The Eagles obviously didn’t feel so worried, however, because they signed the 33-year-old veteran to a contract extension. The move was questioned at the time but the 2016 season made it clear the extension wasn’t a bad idea. Sproles showed he still has gas left in the tank.

At one point in the middle of the season, when Mathews was struggling, the Eagles essentially rode Sproles as their lead back. He had a combined 28 carries in Week 8 and Week 9. His 93 carries on the season mark a career high. Philadelphia also wasn’t shy to get him involved in their passing attack, which only makes sense given how dreadful the Eagles’ receivers are.

Overall, Sproles had a good season. He’s still a nice weapon to have in the running back rotation.

Wendell Smallwood

Numbers: 164 snaps, 77 rushing attempts, 312 rushing yards, 4.1 yards per attempt, 1 rushing touchdown, 6 receptions, 55 receiving yards, 9.2 yards per reception, 0 receiving touchdowns, 1 fumble

Review: Smallwood’s sole fumble came at a very bad time for the Eagles. Philadelphia had all the momentum in the Dallas game until he coughed up the ball and gave the Cowboys new life.

That one mistake shouldn’t define the rookie fifth-round pick’s entire season, however. Smallwood showed some promise in limited carries. He didn’t show the makings of a bonafide lead back, but he did flash some potential as a rotational runner. His receiving ability should help him get on the field more moving forward. He still needs to improve as a pass blocker, though.

Kenjon Barner

Numbers: 99 snaps, 27 rushing attempts, 129 rushing yards, 4.8 yards per reception, 2 rushing touchdowns, 5 receptions, 42 receiving yards, 8.4 yards per perception, 0 receiving touchdowns, 0 fumbles

Review: Barner didn’t play much but he made the most of his limited playing time. Given the way Mathews struggled at times, perhaps the Eagles should have looked to get Barner a few more touches along the way. It didn’t happen, though. Barner suffered a season-ending hamstring injury in Week 15.

Byron Marshall

Numbers: 75 snaps, 19 rushing attempts, 64 rushing yards, 3.4 yards per attempt, 0 touchdowns, 3 receptions, 10 yards, 3.3 yards per reception, 0 receiving touchdowns, 0 fumbles

Review: Marshall spent most of the season on the practice squad. The 2016 undrafted rookie free agent was eventually promoted to the active roster. He had a few nice runs but overall the numbers aren’t pretty. He still has a lot of room for improvement.

Terrell Watson

Numbers: 12 snaps, 9 rushing attempts, 28 rushing yards, 3.1 yards per attempt, 1 touchdown, 1 reception, 5 yards, 5 yards per reception, 0 receiving touchdowns, 0 fumbles

Review: The Eagles were forced to promote Watson to the active roster shortly after signing him to their practice squad late in the season. The 23-year-old rusher has a great back story. He’s a long-shot player worth rooting for in training camp this offseason. I personally loved this moment from Week 17:

WHO COULD LEAVE

The Eagles should definitely look to move on from Mathews. The Birds can save $4 million (compared to only $1 million in dead money) by cutting or trading the oft-injured rusher who turns 30 next October. With Mathews gone, the Eagles will need a new lead rusher.

Sproles, who turns 34 this summer, is calling is quits after the 2017 season. The Eagles can save $4 million by cutting or trading him, but the feeling here is that he’s not going anywhere.

Barner is set to become a restricted free agent. The Eagles will probably give him a low tender. If they don’t tender him at all, he will become an unrestricted free agent.

WHO COULD SIGN

The running back market isn’t particularly great. Le’Veon Bell isn’t leaving Pittsburgh; the Steelers will tag him if they can’t work out an extension with the 24-year-old talent. After Bell, it’s mostly just a bunch of stop-gaps or role players. The Eagles could look to add another veteran body to the mix. Nothing too expensive.

NFL DRAFT OPTIONS

The 2017 NFL Draft features a number of intriguing running back talents. Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook are the big names expected to go in the first round. The explosive Cook has already been linked to Philadelphia in mock drafts. It remains to be seen if the Eagles would take a running back so high in the first. The feeling here is the Eagles won’t go that direction in the first round.

First round running back or not, the Eagles need to get serious about finding a new lead back to improve their running game. An improved rushing attack could really go a long way for the Eagles, as evidenced by the success the Cowboys have had.

WHAT YOU MISSED

The Eagles reportedly have a “strong interest” in Bills wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal, after firing Greg Lewis.

“The Eagles are in desperate need of a receiver that can stretch the field, and that happens to be [Kenny] Stills’ specialty.” What They’re Saying.

Evaluating the team’s quarterbacks with the 2016 season wrapped up.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

Defensive end Connor Barwin told the Breakfast on Broad crew that he would take a pay cut to stay in Philadelphia, from Dave Zangaro of CSNPhilly.com.

“Yes, I would take a pay cut,” he said. “I mean, my plan is to stay here. You know, people talk about my contract and I think, I like to think, I’m a reasonable person and I feel like I’ll work with the Eagles and we’ll restructure and make some kind of deal that works for everybody.”

Before the end of the 2016 season, Barwin talked pretty openly about his frustrating year and his future with the team but stopped short of admitting he’d take a pay cut. With one game left to play, he said he wanted to focus on the Cowboys.

It’s not hard to figure out why questions about Barwin’s future keep coming up. Since his 14½-sack year in 2014, he had seven sacks in 2015 and just five in 2016 as the Eagles switched to a 4-3 defensive scheme.

Then, there’s the contract. Barwin, 30, is set to have a salary cap hit of $8.35 million in 2017 and cutting him would save the Eagles $7.75 million in cap room. Plus, there’s the fact that Vinny Curry, to whom the team just handed a big extension last year, played just 43 percent of defensive snaps in 2016.

PhillyVoice’s Jimmy Kempski has some possible free agents that would fit the team, including a fullback.

Kyle Juszczyk, FB, Ravens (6’1, 240)

During the 2016 season, Doug Pederson made it clear that he wants a fullback on his roster.

“Down the road, as we go, if we can develop a fullback at some point, we will do that,” he said. “We’re constantly looking at that position, not only around the National Football League, but on our roster.”

Juszczyk is a quality run blocker, and an effective receiver out of the backfield. Over the last two seasons, Juszczyk has 78 catches for 587 yards and 4 TDs. He made the Pro Bowl this year, and is in the conversation for the best fullback in the NFL.

In his post-season press conference, Howie Roseman said that vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas, who Roseman hired away from the Ravens, would be setting the Eagles’ free agent board.

So there’s your fullback (maybe), Doug.

Chris Jastrzembski contributed to this post.

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