Philadelphia Eagles: The Running Back Committee


We continue our positional breakdown of the Eagles roster with a look into who will be carrying the ball in Doug Pederson‘s offense. With DeMarco Murray no longer on the squad, the starting job is up for grabs and an effective replacement will be key to sparking the Birds’ offense this season.

Last year the story around the Eagles backfield was a tale of who would be carrying the ball besides former rushing champion DeMarco Murray. The poorly written soap opera between him and ex-Eagles coach Chip Kelly made focusing on a legitimate basis of attacking defenses on the ground impossible to achieve. Both now having lost their jobs in Philly, a new dawn of Eagles football is here with a head coach who knows from experience that a talented group of versatile backs can prove to be just as if not more effective than a single star entity.

In 2015, Pederson found consistent success in utilizing the running backs at his disposal throughout the course of the season. After Jamaal Charles went down for the Chiefs early on, the former Kansas City offensive coordinator made the best with what he had and produced one of the most potent rushing attacks in football last year. Behind Charcandrick West, Spencer Ware and Knile Davis the Chiefs rushed for a combined 2.044 yards which was the 6th highest among teams and a league high 19 touchdowns.

While the skill set of those rushers became evident over the course of last year and with no guarantee that the Eagles backfield replicates that level of talent, it’s known that Philly does intend on keeping at least four running backs on their squad going into this season. The committee is deep, experienced and full of potential as we look forward into who will be getting the most touches for the Birds in 2016.

Along with the DeMarco Murray trade, the Eagles’ other move for a running back in 2015 proved to be relatively successful as Ryan Mathews showed his ability to burn defenders with his one-cut elusiveness and hit the hole hard even with his small 5’9″ frame. The former San Diego Charger averaged 5.1 yards per carry on 106 touches last year with six touchdowns to go along with it.

The “Kelly” offense was rather ineffective in holding onto the ball for a long drive which limited his touches in relation to other backs across the league. Now with an improved offensive line and a stabilized tempo to both practices and play execution, Mathews is poised to eclipse those numbers easily this year at age 28.

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Even with missing part of the season due to injury, Mathews is a battle tested runner who can truly thrive with Pederson now at the helm of the team. But the uncertainty surrounding his health has made the decision on a clear cut starter tougher than usual, especially with the recent contract extension of fellow back Darren Sproles now at play in the personnel choice.

Signed by the Eagles back in 2014, the 33 year old has exhibited no signs of slowing down as a versatile athlete and multi-faceted weapon on offense and special teams. While he has little experience as the featured back in an offensive scheme, Sproles has always been utilized to his fullest under former coach Sean Payton and with relative success in Chip Kelly’s tenure.

While averaging only 3.8 yards per carry on 83 attempts, Doug Pederson believes that there is no need to limit the veteran back in any aspect of the offense. With belief from his coach and GM on his side, Sproles has the explosive ability to change the momentum of a game in an instant and is highly regarded as a true student of the game. If new offensive coordinator Frank Reich can find the right balance for Sproles coming out of the backfield or swinging around the corner for a quick pass, expect to see him take full advantage of each opportunity and prove his value to this Eagles’ roster.

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Dec 6, 2015; Foxborough, MA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles running back Darren Sproles (43) celebrates after returning a punt for a touchdown against the New England Patriots during the third quarter at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports /

One of the younger players who’s been working to elevate his stock and position on the running back depth chart is Kenjon Barner now in his fourth professional season. The Oregon product was acquired by the Eagles back in 2014 yet failed to break into the first team until the following season where the already crowded backfield limited his role immensely. What he was able to do however was watch and learn from some of the best in the game.

Playing backup to 5 Pro Bowl backs in his young career, Barner has been humble in his approach to bettering his game by focusing on trusting his runs through the hole and using his speed to cut by linebackers and get into the open field where he’s proven to be lethal. In last year’s preseason contests, Barner returned a punt for a touchdown in two consecutive games and registered 28 regular season touches averaging 4.4 yards per carry. The commitment to becoming a more potent rusher in this league will hopefully prove to pay off well for Barner and the Birds as his skill set and downfield vision is certainly a weapon Philly could use in a featured back.

Philadelphia Eagles
Aug 16, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles running back Kenjon Barner (34) scores on a 9-yard touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts during the first quarter in a preseason NFL football game at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports /

Another Oregon product fighting for playing time in this roster is Byron Marshall who was a highly sought after commodity following the 2016 NFL Draft. He signed a three year contract as an undrafted rookie free agent who had received numerous offers preceding draft day but ultimately saw an opportunity to make a name for himself in Philadelphia.

An offensive weapon with the versatility to play in the back field and out wide, Marshall has the build to be an effective blocker on pass rushes as well as on special teams where he featured on numerous occasions at the collegiate level. His blistering speed as a former track and field star provides him with all the tools to be a high level player in this league but will need time to adjust to the NFL game as a whole. The raw talent is there and should he make the roster expect Frank Reich to polish Marshall’s game and develop him into a perennial threat at the running back position.

Next: What does Jordan Matthews’ Injury Mean to the Team?

Other young talented backs will be vying to make the cut in Eagles camp with the likes of Wendell Smallwood and Cedric O’Neal working hard in training camp. Smallwood is a big play rookie threat out of West Virginia and his open field ability is something the Philadelphia organization took notice of when they drafted him in the fifth round. While he’s currently dealing with a quad injury look for him to recover and develop his game in the practice squad as he becomes accustomed to Doug Pederson’s offense.

Philadelphia Eagles
Jul 28, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz (11) hands off to running back Wendell Smallwood (28) during training camp at NovaCare Complex. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

Meanwhile, Cedric O’Neal has been making a name for himself in Eagles camp as a bruising back who hits gaps with tremendous power and drive. A rookie from Valdosta State, his style of running is well rounded for a 22 year old who possesses the vision and patience to break defenses apart with his quick decision making and elusive movement at the point of contact. He has something to prove at the highest level of football and looks to be a coach favorite in the running back department.

All and all, the battle for the backfield is just getting started. Will a definitive starter emerge over the course of the preseason or will the running back committee be the story line of this season? Only time will tell but one thing’s for sure, there will be no shortage of competition for minutes in this new Eagles offense.