As we near the start of the Eagles' 2019 training camp, we're taking a closer look at some key position battles to watch this summer. We looked at cornerback yesterday.
Up today: Running back
Names to know
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Jordan Howard, Miles Sanders, Corey Clement, Wendell Smallwood, Boston Scott, Josh Adams, Donnel Pumphrey
What to watch
There are really two separate battles here. The first is for that last roster spot, assuming the Eagles keep four running backs. The second is for playing time and roles once we know who is on the team.
Let's start with the battle to actually make the roster. If we assume two things: 1. The Eagles will keep four running backs, and, 2. Clement will be healthy, then we can be pretty sure we know three of the four running backs who will make the team. Howard and Sanders are stone locks and if Clement is healthy, he should be way ahead of the other backs. In recent seasons, the Eagles have kept four RBs, which means there's one spot left for four players.
Let's look at those four players:
• Wendell Smallwood has been with the Eagles since 2016 and is entering his fourth NFL season - hard to believe. No, he never turned into a feature back, but how many times have you written him off already? He doesn't go down without a fight. He stayed healthy enough to win a job this time last year and again had a role in 2018. Maybe this is the year the Eagles finally move on, but I wouldn't rule him out completely.
• Josh Adams was a rookie last season and didn't even make the roster out of camp. But he was promoted from the practice squad and went on to lead the team in rushing with 511 yards. That's the eighth-highest total ever for an Eagles rookie. So it might seem crazy to think he's the odd man out … but he's probably the odd man out. He excels at running between the tackles and the Eagles have Howard and Sanders to do that this year.
• Boston Scott might actually be the front-runner for this job. And the BoScott Hype Train has officially left the station. He has a Sproles-like body, meaning he's short but also built well. Scott, a sixth-round pick last year, came from the Saints during the season and never really got much of a chance last year. But he has a much more complementary collection of skills than the other guys up for this job. Most importantly, he has some ability as a punt and kick returner. The Eagles don't have a ton of players with punt return experience.
• And, finally, Donnel Pumphrey is still around. His chances aren't great to make the roster, they're not even good, but they're also non-zero. Remember, last year, he was legitimately in the mix for that last spot but couldn't stay healthy in camp. He would need to have a tremendous summer, but crazier things have happened.
No matter who wins that fourth job, it's unlikely they have a major role in the offense if the top three backs stay healthy. That was a problem for Sanders this spring, when he missed all of OTAs with a hamstring injury. We need to see him on the field at training camp. It would also be nice to see Clement back on the field practicing after his knee injury in 2018. During practices this summer, we'll see how first-team reps are split as the depth chart takes form before our eyes.
While I'm hesitant to rule out Smallwood (I've been burned by that before), I think Scott is the favorite to win the job. The key, for me, is his complementary skillset and his ability to be a returner.
As for how playing time shakes out, I think Howard begins the season as the lead back and Clement begins the season as the primary third-down back, but Sanders eats away their snaps and touches as the season goes on. He's a talented young back playing catch-up after missing OTAs and I think it's going to be hard to keep him off the field if he takes the strides I expect him to.
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