Throughout the Andy Reid era, Philadelphia Eagles‘ fans yearned for an offense more willing to commit to the run. Since the introduction of Chip Kelly, not only has the team been more committed to the run game, but employs an attack that will be centered around its impressive stable of Running backs.
The front office made RB high priority following the McCoy-Alonso deal, and so far, on paper, the returns seem promising. Though McCoy was an important and productive piece, there’s reason to believe that the new committee approach will bring the offense even more success than in years past. The additions of Demarco Murray, Ryan Mathews, and Darren Sproles create a formidable trifecta that brings a variety of elements to the Eagles’ backfield and return units. Heading into training camp, the Eagles’ “Big Three” won’t see much competition, and with their roles being fairly projectable, it doesn’t appear that there will be many surprises in store in way of a position battle. However, there are still some questions that we hope to find answers to throughout the process.
The committee’s lead-horse, Demarco Murray, figures to handle the bulk of the workload, though it’s highly unlikely he sees anything close to the 449 touches he handled in 2014. The Eagles’ braintrust did Murray a tremendous favor in signing running-mate Ryan Mathews, whose physical skill set will afford Murray a lighter load. The league’s reigning rushing champ is an undoubtedly talented runner, however, his past usage coupled with his durability concerns makes for a potentially perilous situation should he be asked to shoulder another monstrous load. Fortunately for Murray and the Eagles, this is not the case, and Murray should cede more than enough carries to remain fresh throughout the season (although it’s admittedly impossible to forecast potential injuries).
Barring injury, it’s safe to say Murray will lead the lead the charge through training camp and into the regular season. The team has 40 million reasons to give Demarco the ball early and often, and he is by far the most accomplished feature-back in the committee. Despite the injury concerns, I don’t think Murray will be on any sort of “pitch count” per se, though the team will want him to be able to perform at max potential so a timeshare is expected. Chip Kelly and Pat Shurmur will likely keep the position on a heavy rotation during TC to keep everyone healthy, but Murray’s status is a slam-dunk.
Should Murray be sidelined for any extended period of time, I would assume that Ryan Mathews would assume a quasi feature-back role in his stead. Mathews is a former top prospect who, while oft injured during his time in San Diego, possesses a lot of lead-back traits, and has flashed big time NFL ability at times. Mathews — who is perhaps even more explosive than Murray himself — could thrive in a high volume role if he can remain healthy. At this point, however, Mathews seeing any large amount of touches would be entirely contingent on Murray missing time. It’s pretty clear that while the team is high on Mathews, he is a well calculated insurance policy and cushion to Murray.
Heading into TC Mathews will easily claim his role as primary backup and heir to lead-back duties, however, he will also compete at kick return — a spot at which the coaches seem intent to test Mathews’ explosiveness and elite straight-line speed. Out of the very few camp battles that the Eagles’ RB corp will be involved in this summer, the claim to KR specialist between Mathews and Josh Huff will easily be the most interesting. Huff did little to lose his job as the teams’ primary returner last season, however, Mathews may offer even more upside as he is arguably the most explosive player on the team, and fits the mold of the Kelly return man with his big build and hard-nosed running style.
The punt return unit will feature one the league’s most dynamic playmakers, Darren Sproles, who is yet another slam dunk to contribute meaningfully in reassuming his role from one year ago. Despite his short stature, Sproles has been a swiss army knife type player for the team, contributing on more than just punt return, and is much more than a simple change-of-pace option for the offense. Sproles possesses game-breaking ability, and is truly a threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball. Chip Kelly and co. seem committed to getting Sproles more involved in the offense this season, but the dearth of talent at RB will make it difficult to give him any significant uptick in volume.
While Mathews and Murray are somewhat similar in their roles and skill-set, Sproles provides an entirely different element that no other player on the roster can replicate. As such, Sproles will see literally no competition for his role this summer. Expect Darren to retain his job for the foreseeable future.
The Eagles’ “Big Three” being mortal locks, there are a few other players in the mix that hope to carve out a niche on special teams, or find a home on the team’s practice squad: Matthew Tucker, Kenjon Barner, and UDFA Raheem Mostert. While I do not expect the team to carry 4 backs’ on its roster, it is not beyond reason that one of these players carves out a role for himself on specials. Being behind the ridiculous depth and talent of the Eagles’ RB corp must be difficult for these young players, however, it’s simply the way of life in the NFL. Given the high volume workload that the starters will see, the team will likely retain one of these 3 players on the practice squad for emergency purposes. At this point, Matthew Tucker will more than likely have a leg up on the competition, however, that’s entirely contingent on his performance during TC. What is essentially the 4th job is entirely up in the air, and completely up for grabs.
While there isn’t much intrigue in way of how the Running Back position might shake out, it will be interesting to see how the team negotiates each of Murray, Mathews, and Sproles’ usage throughout the season. Given that both Mathews and Murray come with some level of injury concerns, the way in which the team regulates workload could be key to maintaining a healthy and productive committee. One thing is certain, the team does not want any of the 3 bubble players to have to contribute meaningfully.
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