This time, they really mean it. This time, they really are going to protect running back LeSean McCoy. This time, the Eagles promise, things will be different.

Last time, the Eagles signed Ronnie Brown to give McCoy some relief – Brown was a veteran who played in a Pro Bowl for Miami and he appeared to be a perfect fit when the Eagles signed him before the 2011 season.

But things didn’t go according to plan, partly because Brown didn’t play very well, but mostly because McCoy played very well. He rushed for 1,309 yards, scored an NFL-best 20 TDs and ended up making first-team All-Pro.

And McCoy didn’t just carry the ball – he carried the load. Eagles RBs rushed 338 times in 2011 and McCoy had 273 of them, more than 80 percent.

“That’s probably my mistake,’’ offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. “I always wanted to go into a game and use (a reserve runner) just a little bit more. Then, you get into a game and every game is important. LeSean was so good last year and it was hard to take him out, and it will still be hard to take LeSean out."

That brings us to Dion Lewis, Bryce Brown and Chris Polk. Those young runners – Lewis is in his second season and Brown and Polk are rookies – are competing for maybe two roster spots and one of them will be the primary backup for McCoy.

“They’re all good players and they can all play in this league," McCoy said. “That’s going to be a great competition all camp because they all have talent."

But only one of them has any NFL experience, and even he doesn’t have much of that – Lewis was third string last year behind McCoy and Brown and he carried the ball just 23 times for 102 yards and one TD. To put that into perspective, McCoy had five different games in which he had 23 or more rushing attempts.

Still, that’s 23 carries, 102 yards and one TD more than Lewis’ competition has combined. And neither Brown nor Polk is a blue-chipper coming into the NFL. Brown was a seventh-round draft pick out of Kansas State and Polk wasn’t even drafted – the Eagles signed him as a free agent out of Washington.

So far, Lewis appears to have a clear edge and his experience is the main reason why, especially in recognizing and picking up the blitz – the Eagles’ RB must not only carry and catch the ball, he also has to protect Michael Vick’s very valuable hide.

“Last year, I knew what I had to do, but I wasn’t confident in what I had to do,’’ Lewis said. “Now, I’m confident in what I have to do and know 100 percent what I have to do. Things are slowing down for me and I’m in a rhythm right now.

“Everyone is getting a chance to show what they can do,’’ Lewis added. "(McCoy) is a great back, obviously, but the second player has to be a good player, too. So I just try to go out there every day to prove myself and show the coaches I’m ready to take on that role."

Brown appears to be ahead of Polk for the final roster spot. It doesn’t hurt that Brown was a draft pick, but he’s also looked better in practice – he gets off the ball quicker and hits the hole harder.

Of course, that’s only practice and the real test will come in the preseason, when the young running backs get most of the playing time while the Eagles rest and protect McCoy. And how well the young runners play in those exhibitions will determine how much rest and protection McCoy gets when the games begin to count.

For more up-to-the-minute news and analysis on the Philadelphia Eagles from blogger Kevin Noonan, follow @CBSSportsNFLPHI.