Eagles Offseason Outlook: Running Back
Throughout the next two weeks, we’ll take a position-by-position look at where the Eagles stand going into the offseason. In the first installment we covered the quarterbacks, and now it’s on to the running backs.
STATE OF THE ROSTER
The Eagles spent nearly $12 million in 2015 on running backs (second-most in the NFL, per Spotrac), but by just about every measure, they fell short of lofty preseason expectations. Philadelphia ranked 21st in yards per carry (3.9), and according to Football Outsiders, they had the 17th-best rushing attack in the league.
If it weren’t for Ryan Mathews, the Eagles would’ve been closer to the bottom. Mathews, who missed three games due to injury, averaged 5.1 yards per carry. That career-high mark was good for second among NFL running backs with at least 100 rushes, and it’s a big reason why he ranked eighth in Football Outsiders’ DYAR metric, which measures a player’s performance compared to replacement level.
Mathews’ longest run of the year was a 63-yard touchdown against the Panthers in Week 7.
“He may be the most explosive one we have [at running back],” Chip Kelly said in December. “When you watch the run against — with the groin, the run against Carolina where he hits the home run from 60, and I think he has got that kind of extra gear, I think, than all of those guys.”
Mathews will cost the Eagles $4 million in 2016, which is less than both DeMarco Murray and Darren Sproles. However, because of Murray’s $8 million cap hit, Sproles’ $4.5 million mark and other minor obligations, the Eagles are slotted to spend more than $17 million in 2016 at running back. They could be overtaken depending on free agency and other unforeseen moves, but that leads the league by a large margin.
Murray, of course, was hugely disappointing last year, which you can attribute to some sort of combination of declining skills and misuse. Murray repeatedly said he preferred to run out of under center formations versus the shotgun, and that he liked to get “lathered up” by getting a lot of carries throughout the game to help him get going.
Chip Kelly said something similar when he added Murray, but Doug Pederson indicated at his introductory press conference that Murray fits his offense. The Eagles’ new coach, however, seems more flexible in adjusting his scheme to his players.
“DeMarco Murray fits well into what I can bring,” Pederson said. “I think there’s a unique style there with him. When you go back and look at his tape in Dallas, I think there’s some great opportunities with him, more of a downhill-type guy, physical running back.”
WHAT I THINK WILL HAPPEN
There’s no reason to think Mathews is going anywhere, and although the Eagles could save $3.5 million by cutting Sproles in the final year of his deal, I’m not sure how likely that is. Sproles is making a lot of money for a third-string running back, but he has a lot of value as a Pro Bowl punt returner and could be used better as a receiving option on offense.
Regardless, the big talk recently has been about how Murray and the Eagles are “not in a good place.” Was Murray’s 3.6 yards per carry last season disappointing? Yes. Could the Eagles have a good rushing attack without him? Yes. But the problem with getting rid of him, as you know, is his contract.
Murray would cost the Eagles $13 million if they cut him, which would be a huge burden. It’s also unlikely other teams would want to trade for Murray because of his contract unless he gives up millions of dollars in a restructuring; after his $8 million cap hit in 2016, his cap hit in 2017, 2018 and 2019 is $9 million per year.
That’s why I don’t expect anything to change with the Eagles’ top two running backs, while there’s a possibility Sproles could be cut and Kenjon Barner, who is under contract for 2016, could be let go if Pederson prefers a different young running back.
THE FREE AGENT LIST
Here are the top running back free agents, according to FOX Sports’ WalterFootball.com:
- Doug Martin
- Lamar Miller
- Matt Forte
- C.J. Anderson
- Ronnie Hillman
- Alfred Morris
- Bilal Powell
- Chris Ivory
- Khiry Robinson
- Christine Michael
I’d be shocked if the Eagles make a big splash in free agency to sign a running back, but who thought they’d sign Murray and Mathews at this time last year? Above are some of the top free agents in case the unexpected happens.
THE DRAFT LIST
Here are the top running back prospects in the draft, according to ESPN’s Scouts Inc., including their overall ranking:
- Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State (No. 14)
- Derrick Henry, Alabama (No. 50)
- Alex Collins, Arkansas (No. 66)
- Jordan Howard, Indiana (No. 88)
- Paul Perkins, UCLA (No. 114)
- Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech (No. 120)
- Devontae Booker, Utah (No. 144)
- Kenyan Drake, Alabama (No. 156)
- Kelvin Taylor, Florida (No. 171)
- Josh Ferguson, Illinois (No. 178)
This is the group, as opposed to the free agency list, that should draw your attention. It’s very unlikely the Eagles will spend a high draft pick on a running back, but if they like someone in the later rounds who falls and would be a great value pick, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him selected.