2019 NFL Training Camp battles: How will the Eagles' crowded RB situation play out?
Philly is far deeper than most realize in its remade backfield, but who will get the most reps?
NFL teams have already begun to report to training camp, so you know what means: The 2019 season is right around the corner.
As we inch closer to football's return, we here at CBS Sports are diving into all 32 teams as part of a summer-long look at some of this year's most important camp battles.
In this edition, we highlight a crowded competition in Philadelphia: The Eagles' running back position.
Check out our other training camp battles.
Why this battle is key
Running backs aren't what they used to be. There's just no denying it. Playoff teams have thrived off committees rather than workhorses. Big names (Le'Veon Bell, Todd Gurley) have proven replaceable when surrounded with good supporting casts. Even the best of the best (Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott) cannot elevate teams without solid quarterbacks or cores.
But that doesn't mean the running game is irrelevant. Not by a long shot. A crowded but competitive backfield, in fact, can be an X-factor in Super Bowl contention, as the Eagles demonstrated with their Jay Ajayi-LeGarrette Blount-Corey Clement timeshare in 2017. Just two years later, of course, Ajayi and Blount are already gone, and Clement's role is a relative mystery. And yet the Eagles have not de-prioritized the position one bit as they look to return to the promised land.
This offseason alone, personnel chief Howie Roseman not only traded for a veteran starter but spent a second-round draft pick on a future starter, packing Duce Staley's RB room for the summer. The offensive line, passing game and, most of all, quarterback Carson Wentz's health will always be more important to the Eagles' chances in 2019, but the potential is there for a major improvement out of the backfield -- something that could easily escalate Wentz's confidence and production and ensure a smoother return trip to the postseason.
Here are the biggest names vying for roles at that position in 2019:
Players in the mix
The starter by name entering this season, Howard is just as new to the Eagles' system as his top competition for "No. 1" duties, but he also might be one of the most underrated players on this team. His standing among top NFL RBs took a sizable hit in 2018 thanks to decreased usage under Bears coach Matt Nagy and a second straight season of yards-per-carry decline, but let's not forget this is a 24-year-old who's had two 1,000-yard seasons, 24 rushing touchdowns and just one missed game in three years. Contrary to public perception, even his final appearances in Chicago were good, with 399 yards (4.4 per carry) and four touchdowns in his last five starts.
His limited pass-catching resume is the primary reason he can't be expected to handle a full-time three-down role, but that should only benefit him. Some Bears fans will try to justify his departure because he looked like a plodder next to the lightning-quick Tarik Cohen, but there's little reason to believe he can't -- and won't -- be the 2019 version of Blount in the Eagles' offense.
The expectations for Sanders are varied, mostly because the former Penn State standout and Barkley successor didn't see the field in the spring. Some have prematurely slotted him right ahead of Howard as the Opening Day RB1, and some have understandably sided with caution, pointing to the Eagles' spotty track record of RB picks since landing LeSean McCoy a decade ago. Let's be clear, though: Sanders is not Wendell Smallwood or Donnel Pumphrey or Bryce Brown or Charles Scott or any of the other middling backs to come through Philly: He's more chiseled, more refined and more talented. While he's not nearly as explosive as you might prefer for a complement to Howard, he seems like a safe bet to split carries for chunks of the season.
The biggest wild card of the bunch, Clement has both far exceeded -- and fallen short of -- expectations in his young career. Undrafted in 2017, he replaced an injured Darren Sproles far easier than anyone expected as a rookie, peaking as a bruising third-down option, including as a pass catcher, during the playoffs and Super Bowl. Afforded the opportunity at a bigger role in 2018, he still flashed in the screen game but was otherwise banged and bottled up, limited to 11 games and a 3.8 yards-per-carry average. Clement has the will and physicality to be a serious third-down threat, but can he stay healthy? And are the durability concerns enough to warrant keeping one or even two more backs on the roster?
A late addition to an already overbooked room, the 36-year-old Sproles postponed retirement for yet another season by re-signing with the Eagles this week, and you have to wonder whether his return is more so an endorsement of his skill set or an indictment of Clement and/or the talent behind Howard and Sanders. It seems silly to fret over the No. 3 RB spot, but Sproles is a curious summer arrival. While he's still feisty, versatile and an immediate upgrade for special teams, he's also missed 23 games over the last two seasons. Barring the Eagles waving the white flag on Clement's development, he'll make the rotation even more crowded.
Some Eagles fans criticize him for being "just a guy," but to be fair, Smallwood has been about as effective as a No. 3 RB should be. He doesn't necessarily excel at any one thing, but he knows the system, he can catch the ball, and he's a solid blocker. Ideally, you'd probably have someone with tantalizing upside or athleticism as your fourth or fifth option at RB -- more of a one-trick weapon. But Smallwood is a safe backup, and if Clement really is on the outs, he's still got a shot at a reserve role.
At one point late in 2018, Adams seemed like a lock to stick around. He led the Eagles in rushing yards, after all, finishing with 511 after taking over for the injured crop of Ajayi, Clement and Sproles. After a fumble in a crucial contest vs. the Texans ahead of the playoffs, however, he essentially took a back seat to Smallwood and never returned. Adams has nice size and the occasional burst, but he's also had lots of injury problems himself. Barring a sensational camp, he's a clear long shot.
Comparing him to Sproles, another former Saint, simply because of his small stature is unfair, but Doug Pederson himself had talked up Scott as a potential Sproles-like role player, with most of his potential coming as a kick and punt returner. With a flashy camp and preseason, he could've been a summer darling. With the real Sproles back in the picture, however, there's not much weight to the idea.
Sorry, but this isn't happening. Barring a superhuman showing as a punt returner in place of Scott or someone else, he's out. There's no saving that fourth-round pick anymore.
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