Philadelphia Eagles: If healthy, Donnell Pumphrey should be a roster lock

(Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
(Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images) /

After missing the first three preseason games, can a finally healthy Donnel Pumphrey actually make the Philadelphia Eagles roster? Yes, yes he can.

This has not been a good summer for the bottom half of the Philadelphia Eagles running back room.

With the team’s top three spots more or less set with incumbent roster stalwarts Jay Ajayi, Corey Clement, and a lame duck Darren Sproles all set to return, Philly has had an all-out brawl for the team’s fourth rusher spot.

This fight, however, hasn’t been pretty.

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With a slew of injuries handicapping the roster flexibility, Duce Staley has been forced to give major minutes to a surprisingly surging Wendell Smallwood and a should-have-already-been-cut Matt Jones.

Needless to say, it hasn’t been pretty.

With everyone’s favorite UDFA challenger Josh Adams having missed the majority of the summer with a foot injury that should land him on the practice squad, Philly may simply opt to only keep three running backs, and give that fourth spot to a wide receiver like DeAndre Carter or an extra cornerback like De’Vante Bausby.

But could Donnel Pumphrey throw a wrench in that plan?

Though not a particularly popular player in the City of Brotherly Love at this point, the Eagles brass obviously liked Pumphrey enough to trade up in the fourth round to bring him in, presumably as the heir apparent to Darren Sproles.

Unfortunately, it didn’t go well in year one.

As most fans I’m sure already know, Pumphrey laid a major egg in his first summer with the team, averaging about two yards-per-carry and at times looking lost going up against third and fourth string defenders in the preseason. Between his inability to contribute as a blocker and his inexperience as a pass-catcher, Pumphrey firmly lost out on the battle with Clement for a roster spot, and likely would have been waived if not for a lucky knee injury but send him to IR.

While this redshirt year was likely invaluable for Pumphrey’s development as a player, it is worth wondering how it’s changed his on-field performance.


Well, Pumphrey just can’t seem to get on the field.

After suffering a hamstring injury early in camp, the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher has been sidelined for first three preseason games, not a good sign for a player already fighting for a roster spot.

That might all change going into Week 4.

As per a reply to a comment on his Instagram account (seriously), Pumphrey will appear in the fourth and final preseason game of the summer, a game notoriously for heavily featuring fringe roster players.

With Nate Sudfeld under center and a piecemeal offensive line highlighted by players like Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Matt Pryor, Isaac Seumalo, and Jordan Mailata, could Pumphrey put it all together in one perfect evening to secure a spot on the Eagles roster going into 2018?

Sure, but he may not even have to make the final 53 man roster.

As one of the most statistically dominant players in college football history, Pumphrey was an absolute menace behind San Diego State‘s offensive line, feasting on Mountain West defenses to the tune of 6,405 career rushing yards at 62 touchdowns, even at the surprisingly small size of 5-foot-9 176 pounds.

Though far from a traditional bell-cow back like his successor, future Seattle Seahawks first-round pick Rashaad Penny, Pumphrey’s ability to weave through traffic in the Aztec’s power run scheme and elude bigger defenders obviously caught the attention of Eagles’ GM Howie Roseman, who likely believed he’d found a decade younger replacement for Sproles with a Day 3 draft grade.

This tunnel vision, a phenomenon shared by much of the fanbase, likely inflated Pumphrey’s perceived value going into camp and made his eventual struggles all the more infuriating. Pumphrey was a player who supposed to come in and serve as a dynamic, do-it-all swiss army knife out of the backfield, creating an unguardable pairing with Sproles known affectionately as ‘the pony set’. How could he go from being one of the most prolific runners in college football history to a player who couldn’t elude a fourth-string New York Jets linebacker a few months later?

To put it simply, that was never Pumphrey’s game.

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As virtually the entire Aztec’s offense, Pumphrey was nary asked to drop into coverage as a pass blocker, let alone serve as a receiver out of the backfield, averaging less than two catches a game for his college career.

Now don’t get me wrong, plenty of players diversify their skillsets at the game’s highest level to become more dynamic athletes, a recent example being Leonard Fournette, the former LSU runner who caught almost as many passes as a rookie (36) and he did over a three-year college career (41). But unlike Pumphrey, Fournette was allowed to develop in the starting lineup.

Serving as the Jacksonville Jaguars‘ primary runner, Fournette averaged over 20 carries a game vs 2.6 passes, and could slowly get better with each passing week. This is in firm contrast to Pumphrey’s development, who was expected to flip his playing style upside down almost overnight, having to line up in the backfield on one play, and shift out into the slot on the next.

With no previous experience as a wide receiver, that’s a pretty tall order to ask of any player, regardless of their college pedigree.

So, barring a total collapse in the fourth preseason game, or another IR eligible injury, should Pumphrey have the inside track to earn the Eagles’ fourth running backs spot if they even decide to keep four?

I’d have to say so.

With this being Sproles’ final season in the NFL, as he was unsatisfied going out on a season-ending Week 3 injury, the Eagles eventually need to find a replacement for their Hall of Fame-caliber scatback. Sure, Corey Clement could, and rightfully should take some of those snaps moving forward, he did catch four passes for 100 yards in the Super Bowl after all, but he appears to be much more like a modern-day Brian Westbrook than the next Darren Sproles.

Simply put, at this point, it may just be wiser to ride it out and keep Pumphrey around for one more season to learn from Sproles both on an off the field.

While he may never become as dynamic of an athlete as his 2017 draft classmates Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara, Pumphrey still has enough potential as an offensive weapon to earn a spot on the roster, even if he doesn’t play a single snap in the 2018 regular season.

Last summer, Roseman and company opted to keep players like Clement and Shelton Gibson on the roster because of their high upsides, and were rewarded for their patience with a pair of players who could be long-term roleplayers moving forward. Subjecting Pumphrey to waivers would all but succeed that potential to another team, as he would almost surely be claimed by a running back hungry team like the Jets, or a forward-thinking team looking for a dynamic chess piece like the New England Patriots.

Next. Meet DeAndre Carter, Philly’s unlikely preseason star. dark

So as the summer winds down, fans will finally get an opportunity to watch Pumphrey play another game in midnight green. While his performance will surely be heavily dissected by fans, pundits, and writers alike after a redshirt rookie season, it seems like his place on the final 53 man roster may be more or less secure.  It took Darren Sproles until his fourth year in the league to become a legitimate weapon for then-San Diego Chargers, it would be incredibly shortsighted to abandon Donnel Pumphrey’s potential after less than two.