Philadelphia Eagles: Don’t count out running back Donnel Pumphrey

(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

After spending all of last season on IR, don’t count out Philadelphia Eagles 2017 fourth round pick Donnel Pumphrey moving forward.

When discussing the team’s haul following the NFL draft, Philadelphia Eagles general manager Howie Roseman declared that the team would be grading Sidney Jones as a member of the 2018 rookie class as he sat out the vast majority of the 2017 NFL season due to an Achilles injury suffered at his college pro day.

While Jones will surely play some role for the Eagles in 2018, as he was one of the highest-ranked cornerbacks in his entire class, another player who missed his true freshman season in the league who could subsequently pay major dividends move forward is 2017 fourth-round running back Donnel Pumphrey.

Pumphrey, the 132nd player selected in the 2017 NFL Draft, was one of the harder players to project coming out of college, as he’s a textbook case of a boom-and-bust prospect.

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On one hand, Pumphrey was one of the most productive players in college football history, a four-year starter at San Diego State University, who also just so happens to be the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher.

As the focal point of the Aztecs’ 10th ranked rushing attack, Pumphrey had the ball in his hands a lot in college and prove to be an incredibly hard player to take to the ground, rushing for an incredible 6,405 yards on 1,059 carries for 62 touchdowns in his four years on campus.

A threat to take the ball to the house on any given play, Pumphrey’s versatility as a runner gave the defensive coordinators of the Mountain West Conference fits, as he could weave through traffic with relative ease between the tackles or burst past linebackers on toss plays for huge gains on the outside.

Simply put, if Pumphrey had the ball in his hands in the open field, he was going to make you pay.

However, as one of the smallest running backs in the entire 2017 NFL Draft, generously listed at 5-foot-8, 176 pounds at the NFL Draft Combine, few scouts expected Pumphrey’s game to translate directly into the professional level, as very few backs his size have been able to be lead backs on NFL teams.

This, when coupled with the fact that he only caught 99 passes over four-year career in college made some talent evaluators question whether Pumphrey would ever develop into more than just a gadget player, with some teams reportedly taking him off the board altogether due to his lack of size.

One team who didn’t take Pumphrey off their draft board, however, was the Philadelphia Eagles.

Far from it in fact.

After missing out on selecting Dalvin Cook in the second round, even after reportedly attempting to trade up to select him, the Eagles didn’t want to make the same mistake twice and shipped the 139th and 230th overall picks to select Pumphrey 132nd overall.

Though some understandably questioned the move, as it was a risky proposition to trade up to select a player who seems too small to become a lead back even with his Gotti college stats, others praised the move and prematurely anointed Pumphrey as the second coming of Darren Sproles, the team’s diminutive fan favorite scatback.

But unfortunately for everyone involved, Pumphrey’s transition into the pros did not go smoothly.

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After playing exclusively in the Aztecs’ power run offense for almost half a decade, Pumphrey struggled to transition into his new presumed role as a third-down change-of-pace back. His inexperience as a receiver, when coupled with a longer than expected learning curve to master Doug Pederson‘s West Coast offense lead to a plethora of speculation as to whether or not he would even make the Eagles’ 53-man roster, with the word bust being whispered among the fan base.

And to make matters worse, Pumphrey looked atrocious in the preseason.

Facing off almost exclusively against opposing team’s second and third string defenders, Pumphrey averaged an egregious 1.9 yards per carry over the Eagles four preseason contest and looked lost at times regardless of the play call.

Though he did flash a few glimmers of hopes in four games of action with the team, Pumphrey’s repeated miscues lead to an unfortunate slew of interceptions and sacks all the while his choir of outside naysayers grew louder and louder with each passing week. Even though the team invested a pair of 2017 draft picks in acquiring Pumphrey, after being noticeably outplayed by undrafted free agent Corey Clement for the vast majority of the summer as the duo fought tooth and nail for a spot on the Eagles 53-man roster almost no one expected the former NCAA rushing champion to actually make the roster after the team’s Game 4 defeat to the New York Jets.

A decision the Eagles fortunately did not have to make.

After suffering an ankle injury, the Eagles opted to place Pumphrey on IR, effectively giving him an entire season to redshirt and grow stronger in preparation for his sophomore campaign.

But after looking lost in his first preseason with the team, could Pumphrey actually come back in year two a changed player, and one who could conceivably earn a spot on the 53-man roster?

Yes, yes he could.

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Much like Philadelphia 76ers point guard Ben Simmons, Pumphrey is an incredibly unique playmaker, but one who can’t simply be plugged into any scheme and contribute from day one.

As one of the most productive rushers in college football history, Pumphrey has proven that he can make plays with the ball in his hands, and is absolutely lethal in the open field, as highlighted by his frequent touchdown runs of 20 or more yards, but at only 5-foot-8 ,176 pounds it would be incredibly naive to expect him to be productive as a between the tackles runner when receiving 20 plus carries a game.

No, for Pumphrey to truly shine in an offense, he needs to be used in space, whether that be on outside zones, toss plays, or as a receiving option either out of the backfield or in the slot, and after spending four years exclusively running the ball in a power scheme, making such a drastic transition to one’s game simply takes time.

With a full offseason to get bigger, faster, and stronger, and the learn the intricacies of the Eagles’ scheme, it’s entirely possible that Pumphrey could come into camp ready to turn heads in his second go-around with the team.

While his road to a spot on the 53 man roster appears to have become a bit more challenging following the team’s decision to re-sign Sproles, the Eagles currently have a stockpile of big, between the tackles runners like Clement, Jay Ajayi, Wendell Smallwood, Matt Jones, and Josh Adams all fighting for a spot on the roster, but none of these players possess the unique combination of 4.48 speed, agility, and elusiveness that Pumphrey can bring to the table as a change-of-pace back.

And what about the pony set, the Eagles’ elusive two back subpackage designed to attack opposing defenses with both Sproles and Pumphrey on the field at the same time? Once heralded as a matchup nightmare in last season’s training camp, Pederson was unable to deploy the package after losing Pumphrey and later Sproles to a pair of season-ending injuries and those pages of the playbook went largely unused.

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Though this package alone obviously won’t secure Donnel Pumphrey a spot on the Philadelphia Eagles 53-man roster moving forward, it does prove that the team is willing to specifically script plays to make use of their 2017 fourth round pick and could continue to find creative ways to optimize his unique skill set in space moving forward.