Philadelphia Eagles: It’s go-time for Kenneth Gainwell

(Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)
(Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images) /

There’s a time-honored tradition in the Philadelphia Eagles fandom – and really, in NFL fandom as a whole – of looking for the next big thing in training camp.

Sure, everyone already knows about the big-named guys, players like Haason Reddick and A.J. Brown who came to town with big-time free agent contracts or as the focal point of a massive trade, and it’s always fun to try to earmark the uber underdog who overcomes the odds and becomes the next big thing – think Travis Fulgham in 2020 – but what about the players who came here with appropriate fanfare, roughly met expectations, and are not primed to take a bigger step forward?

Who are those guys on this iteration of the Eagles? Who is the player fans should keep a close eye on because they have a unique set of skills, a new opportunity, or just a strong enough work ethic to take a step forward in a big way?

Can second-year running back Kenneth Gainwell be one of those guys? Do you know what Philadelphia Eagles fans? I don’t see why not.

Philadelphia Eagles fans should keep a close eye on Kenneth Gainwell.

Kenneth Gainwell is a modern man. Where he once would have been labeled a “tweener,” who is too much of a running back to play slot receiver and too much like a slot receiver to play running back, his versatility is now championed by fans, teammates, and talent evaluators alike, as his presence on both the roster and the field gives opposing play callers pause and thus can change up their play-calling to something a bit more conservative.

The successor to fellow hybrid rusher/receiver Antonio Gibson at Memphis, Gainwell was the focal point performer for the Tennessee Tigers during his time in the Music City to the point where he accounted for roughly 30.5 percent of the team’s offensive production in any given game during his 2019 sophomore season.

Had Gainwell returned to college for the 2020 college football season, he likely would have been drafted higher than the 150th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, but by opting out of what would have been his junior season, he slipped all the way down to the fifth round, where he was straight up stolen by the Philadelphia Eagles with their fifth of nine draft selections.

Fast forward a little over a year into the future, and one would imagine Howie Roseman is pretty happy with his selection.

Though Gainwell’s stats as a rookie weren’t particularly noteworthy, at least from a macro, whole NFL standpoint, recording just 544 yards from scrimmage with 291 as a rusher and 253 as a receiver, his production was up-and-down more because of an inconsistent role in the offense than any glaring issues with his game, a big-time injury, or some sort of falling out in one way or another. When actually given a free(r) runway to operate with volume, Gainwell looked like the sort of do-it-all modern rusher who may not be perfectly suited to truck for two yards at the goal-line but see usage on all three downs as a rusher in space, between the tackles, and used in games on obvious passing downs as a receiver moreso than a pass blocker.

Still, at 5-foot-9, 200 pounds, there’s little reason to believe Gainwell couldn’t take a step forward across the board and become the sort of Theo Reddick-type performer that every team would like to employ, even if their exact role in any given offense could vary.

Considering Jalen Hurts is an elite runner, too, who has been looking for a long-term RPO-partner capable of running, chop blocking, and serving as a safety valve receiver in the short passing game, there’s a lot to be excited about in regards to Gainwell’s second professional season.

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Realistically, Kenneth Gainwell won’t usurp Miles Sanders to become the Philadelphia Eagles’ starting running back this fall, at least not early on in the regular season; Sanders is a good receiver in his own right and, when healthy, is still the better player right now. But who knows, maybe Gainwell will, um, gain well with the production he is afforded and will gradually build up his resume to the point where the 2023 starting running back spot will be his to lose – an outcome that would be incredibly beneficial to the boys in midnight green, as Sanders will be an unrestricted free agent next March free to sign wherever he pleases.