In 2015, the Eagles replaced LeSean McCoy with DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews, a change that was billed as being two star running backs for the price of one. How'd that wind up working out?
While Mathews ended up impressing some people, Murray — predictably — was a flop. Issues of scheme fit aside, it was clear the previous season's near-historic workload as a member of the Cowboys had taken its toll, and the NFL's reigning rushing champion was no longer a premier back. Worn down and missing an offensive line stocked with three Pro Bowlers, Murray lacked explosion and looked hesitant with the ball in his hands. There was evidence of decline during his 1,845-yard campaign in Dallas as well, but it semeed there was nothing left by the time he joined the Eagles.
Murray's 3.6 yards per carry ranked 42nd out of 47 qualifying backs. Shipped off to Tennessee in the offseason, it's difficult to argue he will be missed. On the other hand, the only major addition to the unit was fifth-round draft pick Wendell Smallwood. Whether his best days are behind him or not, Murray was something of a known quantity, whereas this new kid is not. So are the Eagles really better off?
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Believe it or not, there are people who saw Mathews' superior production coming. Aside from Murray being up against the Curse of 370, there was a marked difference between the two even at training camp. Mathews looked bigger, ran faster and cut sharper. He was also underrated coming over from the Chargers to begin with, where the former first-round pick twice eclipsed 1,000 yards and received an invitation to the Pro Bowl in 2011.
Sure enough, Mathews was the far more effective of the two, averaging a full yard-and-a-half more per attempt and making an identical seven trips to the end zone despite 111 fewer total touches. He should've been named the starter over Murray four weeks into the season. There is no question right now that regardless of scheme Mathews is the more talented ball-carrier, and the Eagles' ground attack only stands to improve if he handles the bulk of the workload.
Of course, the problem with Mathews never really was talent. Once again, the veteran back missed time last year due to injury, this time losing three games due to a concussion. Granted, that could happen to anybody, but the reality is he's only suited up for the full 16 games once in six NFL seasons, and while it's typicaly been only a couple games here and there, it's tough to depend on his availability.
When Mathews inevitably is out, who will the Eagles turn to? Darren Sproles isn't a guy you feed the ball to 20 times a game. Is Smallwood going to be ready to handle a full workload? Even just looking at this situation as a rotation before adding any injuries into to the mix, it's a tad underwhelming. The right guy may be at the top of the depth chart finally, but there are a lot of questions about that, not to mention who's behind him.
In terms of yards per touch, Sproles is coming off of the worst season of his career, averaging a pedestrian 3.8 yards per carry and 7.1 yards per reception. He's 33, entering the final year of his contract and there's a little skepticism as to how much is left in the tank.
None of which is to say Sproles is done. In fact, it will not be surprising at all if he experiences something of a rebound in 2016. If nothing else, being moved around in a new offense should keep defenses on their toes for the first half of the season. 3.8 and 7.1 are probably about the worst figures we can expect, and even with those disappointing numbers, Sproles had a way of supplying a spark in some key moments. At this stage of his career, he may not reel in 70-80 passes anymore, but he's still a nice weapon to have. Sproles probably could be an effective part-time player into his 40s. He'll be fine.
It's unusual for a fifth-rounder to be so highly counted upon, yet that's exactly the situation Smallwood may find himself as a rookie. Mathews is injury prone and Sproles is not a feature back. That means unless Kenjon Barner is going to make the team again, Smallwood at the very least is likely to see a handful of touches per game right out of the chute, possibly more
That is the plan anyway, although some if it depends on whether he can become a suitable pass-protector. Smallwood ran for 1,519 yards with a 6.3 average and nine touchdowns his final season at West Virginia, so there's not as much concern about what he can do with the ball in his hands. It's whether he can pick up the playbook and finer points of the position, particularly running routes and keeping the quarterback's jersey clean. There's simply no way to know whether he can be trusted to handle those responsibilities this season.
BETTER OR WORSE
Murray was overrated to begin with, especially considering his early demise was easy to spot. That being said, taking money and his bad attitude out of the equation, are the Eagles truly better off without him? On paper, he provides stability, while there was a;sp some hope for a bounce-back year of sorts in a scheme more befitting of his abilities. Smallwood could be a nice back in time, perhaps even an eventual starter, but from where we're sitting today, the depth chart and overal talent pool has been weakened. WORSE