Philadelphia Eagles: Wendell Smallwood shined as a third down back

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

As injuries continue to pile up at running back, Wendell Smallwood may have found his role as the Philadelphia Eagles’ third-down back moving forward.

Of all the players who stepped up and gave it their all in the Philadelphia Eagles‘ Week 4 loss to the Tennessee Titans, none were more surprising than third-year running back Wendell Smallwood.

Sure, one could point to Jordan Matthews‘ exhilarating 56-yard touchdown reception, or recently re-signed DeAndre Carter‘s last-minute punt return to set up the game time field goal, but did anyone seriously expect Smallwood would lead the team with 7.8 yards-per-carry, almost twice that of unquestioned lead back Jay Ajayi and Week 3 stud Josh Adams?

Smallwood played so well in Week 4 that Adams didn’t even log a single carry.

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Though it was a bit of a surprise that Smallwood even made the initial 53 man roster, as many penciled Adams into the team’s fourth running back spot, the Delaware native has quietly carved out a nice spot for himself as the team’s kick returner and has actually flashed as a potential third-down back.

As arguably the best pass-catching back on the roster last weekend, whenever Smallwood was on the field, Mike Vrabel‘s defense had to approach the Eagles offense in a slightly different manner, playing their linebackers a little further off the ball just in case Doug Pederson called a swing pass.

This optionality set up quite a few solid runs by Smallwood when his team needed him most, plowing through the defensive line with an aggressive fervor rarely seen by a player not named Ajayi.

And really, should we be surprised?

Coming out of college, Smallwood looked like a Moneyball, Big 12 version Ezekiel Elliott, a player capable of doing it all in the offensive backfield. Now granted, even Smallwood’s parents aren’t going to compare the two on the field at the moment, as Elliott is arguably one of the top-5 running backs in football right now, but when you compare their measurables, there is a striking resemblance.

While Elliott is roughly two inches taller and about 20 pounds heavier, both players ran 4.4 40 yard dashes at the NFL Draft Combine and led their respective conferences in rushing in 2015.

Serving as ‘complete’ three-down packs for their respective teams, capable of rushing the ball, catching the ball, and contributing in pass protection, many lauded Elliott as a can’t miss prospect, but Smallwood did not receive such glowing praise. Between his off the field issues, including a charge of intimidating a witness in a murder case, and his lack of flashy ‘x plays’ in college, many were surprised that the Eagles snagged him in the fifth round after missing out on big-name players like Devontae Booker, Jordan Howard, and Paul Perkins, the player many linked them to in the pre-draft process.

As a rookie, Smallwood flashed some potential as a Day 3 steal, rushing for 312 yards on 77 carries and a touchdown, but his inability to stay healthy largely kept Wendell off the field during his sophomore campaign, receiving only 47 carries for 172 yards and a touchdown the following season.

No wonder he appeared to be a long shot to make the roster going into his third season.

However, now four games into the 2018 NFL season, it appears that Smallwood may have finally found his position on the roster: giving the Eagles their first true third-down back since the Andy Reid-era.

Though the team initially drafted Donnel Pumphrey to become the second coming of Darren Sproles, maybe Smallwood could be the team’s third down, change of pace back moving forward, especially if he can shore up his pass blocking abilities. While he can’t be used in the same creative ways as Sproles, his size, speed, and abilities are far more in line with a Brian Westbrook-esque third down back.

Who knows, maybe the team could even shift Smallwood out wide and utilize him in the proverbial ‘Pony Set’, a formation that was practiced last summer but has yet to be used in an actual game?

With an astounding five running backs on the roster at the moment, as crazy as that may be given all of the injuries, the Eagles will eventually need to decide what kind of rotation they will utilize moving forward at the running back position. With Sproles and Ajayi set to become free agents next year, and Corey Clement in line to follow suit in 2020, it seems incredibly unlikely that the collection of players on the roster this fall will still be here in three years.

While it’s totally possible that the team could bypass the entire crew and opt to sign a big name player like Le’Veon Bell, or draft a first round rusher like Bryce Love in the first round, it would appear that Philly will utilize a running back rotation for the foreseeable future, regardless of who is on the roster. Though the lead back may be an unknown, the team also needs to make sure they keep a strong stable of back together for situational football.

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No matter who becomes the leading rusher moving forward, the Philadelphia Eagles are at their best when they have a collection of complementary rushers, and if Wendell Smallwood can continue to make plays in his new role, the lifelong Birds fan may have finally silenced the doubters and carved out a legitimate role on the roster for years to come.