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Analyzing the Eagles running back situation

By: Jesse Larch, Sports Talk Philly Staff

When projecting the Eagles' 53-man roster, one of the toughest positions to gauge is running back. 

This preseason we have seen poor play from LeGarrette Blount and Donnell Pumphrey, practices and games missed by Wendell Smallwood due to injury, and an undrafted rookie show that he belongs in the NFL in Corey Clement. 

The only running back guaranteed a spot on the roster is Darren Sproles, who has not played a snap in preseason.

Sproles has been a staple of the Eagles' offensive arsenal since his arrival in 2014 and is an established threat out of the backfield. Sproles has amassed 40 or more receptions in every season since 2009. He has played with three different teams and produced in every system he has played in.

Getting up there in age, the 34-year-old Sproles has been given a rest this offseason to keep him fresh for the regular season, and it has allowed more snaps for those below him on the depth chart to battle for their spot on the roster. 

One player that fans were sure would be on the final roster was LeGarrette Blount after he signed a one-year deal late in the offseason. 

Blount led the league in touchdown rushes last season with 18 as a part of the Belichick-Brady machine in New England. Blount captured two Super Bowl rings with the Patriots before entering free agency this year. 

With the Eagles ranking 24th in the NFL in red zone efficiency last season, Blount seemed like a perfect fit to help the Eagles cross the goalline when the field is shortened. Unfortunately, Blount has struggled mightily this preseason. 

Blount has 13 carries for 36 yards with a measly 2.8 yard average gain per carry. He has also caught two passes for 15 yards with a fumble. 

In the Eagles last preseason outing against the Miami Dolphins Blount looked better when he gained 19 yards on four carries, but the bulk of that came on one play when he rushed for 16 yards. 

Blount's spot on the roster began to be questioned after NFL.com's Adam Caplan mentioned that Blount is "no lock" to make the final roster. 

Related: Report: LeGarrette Blount could be a surprise cut

It is worth mentioning that head coach Doug Pederson rebuffed the report from Caplan, but Pederson also said that Jordan Matthews did not have to worry about his position on the depth chart before being traded to Buffalo.

In addition to his play, Blount's spot on the roster is being affected largely by the other running backs in camp. Two running backs that are making a strong impression are Wendell Smallwood and Corey Clement. 

Smallwood has been hampered with nagging injuries throughout camp, but when he has been on the field he has looked like someone who will be used often on Sundays. In his only preseason game, Smallwood appeared to be the best running back on the roster when he ran for 28 yards on four carries. 

Smallwood's spot on the roster appears to be safe, leaving Blount, Clement, and Donnell Pumphrey to battle for a spot on the roster. 

Corey Clement came to the Eagles as an unsigned rookie free agent, and he is a player that many were surprised to see go undrafted. Clement has been a great addition, and he could give the Eagles another option in short yardage situations. With 24 carries for 89 yards and two touchdowns. He has also proven to be a better pass catcher than people originally thought with six receptions for 48 yards this preseason. 

The last running back battling for a spot is Donnell Pumphrey, the team's fourth round pick. Pumphrey is compared often to Darren Sproles because of his size and agility. Pumphrey has been the worst running back when carrying the ball with a 2.1 average on 19 carries. Pumphrey does lead all players on the Eagles this preseason with 12 receptions. 

There has been far more downs than ups for Pumphrey this preseason, with ball security being a major issue. The team appeared committed to getting him the ball in space as a receiver and returner, but Pumphrey has been downright frightening to watch as a returner, muffing punts often and struggling to hold on to the ball when it is in his hands. 

The Eagles do have a level commitment to Pumphrey after spending a fourth round pick on the running back, but he has been the least impressive of the team's running backs. 

It is anticipated that the Eagles will carry four running backs on the roster, and that makes sense when you look at Doug Pederson's approach to the running game. 

Throughout last season the Eagles backfield was unpredictable, and it is no different heading into this season. This trend can be traced back to Pederson's mentor Andy Reid, who happens to be the most successful coach in Eagles' history. Reid often used multiple running backs in Philadelphia, highlighted by the three-headed monster of Duce Staley, Brian Westbrook, and Correll Buckhalter. 

Even during Pederson and Reid's time together in Kansas City they often used the whole depth chart when it came to the running game. They had Jamaal Charles, one of the elite running backs in the league at the time, but names like Knile Davis, Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West consistently found themselves on the field even when Charles was not injured. 

The model that Reid has set is what we can expect Pederson to follow this season. Sproles will be the pass catching threat, Smallwood appears to be the guy to get carries between the 20s, but after Sproles and Smallwood the position is riddled with questions.

The team clearly wants Pumphrey to be a playmaker for the team based on his usage in practice and the emphasis on putting him in positions to touch the ball in space. He also fills Sproles's shoes when the veteran inevitably retires. Keeping Pumphrey around simply to learn from Sproles and how to survive as a small back in a big man's game could pay dividends for the San Diego State product, and the Eagles in the long-term.

LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement look like red zone specialists and they could be fighting for the same roster spot right now simply because the team has the least amount of commitment to these two when breaking down the running back group. Clement is an unproven prospect, and Blount is on a one-year deal and at an age when running backs begin to rapidly decline.

Clement brings a little more versatility than Blount as a pass catcher and in running schemes, but Blount is a proven commodity at an area where the Eagles mightily struggled last season.

The unpredictable nature of the Eagles' running backs is exactly what the Eagles and Doug Pederson want. With four different options, the team will be able to constantly mix up the looks that opponents will see. We will just have to wait to see which four will be on the team come week one.

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