One of the pressing needs the Eagles will want to address this spring will be at the running back position.
Under Doug Pederson, the Eagles have had a running-back-by-committee philosophy, and that does not figure to change anytime soon.
The Eagles were hurting at the position for most of the season in 2018. The Birds let veteran LeGarrette Blount and his 766-yard, 4.4-yards-per-carry season go after Blount helped the Eagles win the franchise’s first Super Bowl.
The Birds’ plan to lean on veteran Darren Sproles and Jay Ajayi, who was entering his fourth season, to lead the way fell apart when both players sustained injuries that kept them off the field during the guts of the season.
Sproles injured his hamstring in practice before the Week 2 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was sidelined until Week 13 against the Washington Redskins, but did help the Eagles’ unlikely run to a playoff spot.
Ajayi, who wanted to have a big year and become the Eagles’ feature back, suffered a torn ACL Week 5 against the Minnesota Vikings and was lost of the season. He finished the season with 184 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
While the Eagles struggled to produce wins after losing their top two backs, it got worse when second-year ball carrier Corey Clement, who was not having a great season, suffered a knee injury after Week 14 and missed the Eagles’ final three regular season games and both playoff games.
All three running backs are question marks for 2019. Sproles and Ajayi are not under contract, Clement is entering the third year of his rookie free-agent contract.
On March 13, we will all see if the Birds sign either of these players to return or someone else.
The Eagles rarely take a running back in the first round of the draft, but that doesn’t mean they can’t find value later on.
One thing all the Eagles’ running backs under Pederson have had plenty of is heart. One player who fits that mold and will likely be there in the second round when the Birds select twice at No. 53 (from Ravens) and No. 57 is Kentucky’s Benny Snell.
Snell is listed at 5 feet 11, 222 pounds. He does not have blazing speed or highlight-reel moves, but is a big, powerful back with a nose for the end zone and the heart of an athlete who will not be denied.
Penn State fans will long remember how Snell kept Trace McSorley off the field for the final four minutes of the Citrus Bowl Jan. 1 after Nittany Lions coach James Franklin inexplicably kicked a field goal when faced with a fourth and seven at the Wildcats’ 14-yard line with 4:12 left in the game, trailing by six.
Snell carried the ball eight times for 25 yards and two first downs, eating up all but nine seconds of clock and securing Kentucky’s 27-24 win.
Penn State could not answer Snell’s heart that day. He finished with 144 yards on 26 carries and two touchdowns.
It has been Snell’s heart that has carried him to this point. He ran a 4.66 in the 40-yard dash at last week’s Combine in Indianapolis. He produced 16 reps on the 225-pound bench press, a 29.5-inch vertical leap and 119 inches in the broad jump. He ranked low or middle of the road in each of those categories.
There were zero wow moments for Snell at the Combine.
His stats and what he shows on film is what tells the tale of Snell. Overlooked by Ohio State in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, he chose Kentucky over offers from Iowa, Cincinnati, Boston College, Toledo and West Virginia..
Snell went on to carry the ball 737 times in three seasons for a school record 3,873 yards (5.3 yards per carry) and 48 touchdowns. Snell caught 28 career passes for 216 yards.
Snell was the main reason the Wildcats finished 10-3 in 2018 with a national ranking.
Because of his 40 time, vertical leap and broad jump, some observers are counting him out.
After his workouts in Indianapolis, Snell talked about how, when he is needed most on the field, he comes through.
His performances back that up.
“When you need me in critical times, I make things happen,” Snell said. “I usually make something out of nothing. I just see myself as a productive player, a real passionate player. You can’t measure a person’s heart. … There’s things behind football you can’t measure.”
NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein wrote this about Snell.
“Downhill grinder with an ability to create for himself with his vision and power, but lacking desired level of elusiveness and burst as an NFL runner. Snell is a touchdown hog whose scores were often earned and rarely given. Teams will like his toughness, size and instincts, but he must improve has blitz pickup to counter his athletic limitations. He needs to find the right fit to become an average RB2/RB3.” Certainly that last sentence will serve as motivation wherever he lands.
That fit could be in Philadelphia.
The 2019 NFL Draft will be held in Nashville April 25-27.
A sleeper running back in the draft for the Eagles could come from a player who spent his college career playing at Lincoln Financial Field. Ryquell Armstead, out of Temple, is a 5-11, 223-pound wrecking ball who recorded 13 touchdowns with 1,042 yards rushing in 2018. He is projected as a fullback at the NFL level.
His 4.45, 40-yard-dash time at the Combine opened eyes but so did his lack of production catching passes out the backfield for the Owls. He caught just eight passes for 52 yards in 2018, but to be fair Temple did not start the season with a clear choice at quarterback.
Armstead’s stock would be higher if injuries weren’t part of his bio every year in college. ••
Follow Al Thompson on Twitter @thompsoniii