The date is March 12, 2015. DeMarco Murray has just agreed to a 5 year, 42 million dollar contract and has essentially signed on to be the Eagles’ feature running back for the next half decade. Following a burdensome 392 carry, 1,845 yard campaign, the 2014 NFL rushing champion’s arrival is coupled with the signing of another starting running back and former first round pick, Ryan Mathews. The collective thought across the organization is that, with the addition of these two pieces, the team is poised for a deep playoff run that could potentially have them competing for a Lombardi trophy in February.
While 2014 saw the franchise’s all-time leading rusher, LeSean McCoy, eclipse 1,300 yards for the third time in his career, the frustration felt when the team failed to convert critical, short yardage 3rd and 4th down situations was difficult to ignore. Yes, a shaky and inconsistent offensive line was partly to blame. The fact remained however, that McCoy was often viewed as a running back that was looking for a home run on every play and, as a result, lost yards trying to make something out of nothing. His Barry Sanders-esque style of running made for memorable highlights that left fans’ jaws on the floor but former Eagles head coach Chip Kelly clearly lacked confidence in McCoy as it pertained to moving the chains when the offense needed a mere yard or two (the losses at San Francisco and Arizona come to mind).
So when Kelly jettisoned the soon-to-be 7th year running back (with a hefty cap hit nonetheless) to Buffalo for former Oregon LB Kiko Alonso, the signing of Murray seemed like a logical move at face value, right? Here was Kelly, practically stealing DeMarco from Dallas while also solving the short yardage woes that plagued them the previous season. Despite Murray’s ridiculous amount of touches in 2014, the addition of Mathews was clearly indicative of the Eagles’ intention to lighten the workload of Murray while also providing depth. The thought of a Murray/Mathews/Sproles three headed monster had both analysts and fans alike crowning the Eagles the league rushing champions before a single preseason game had even been played.
What a difference a year makes. To say DeMarco Murray was a disappointment is the understatement of the century. Not only did Murray fail to match even half of his rushing total from the previous season, he all too often looked like he was running in quicksand. There was no burst. There was no power. There appeared to be no effort. Adding insult to incompetency, Murray largely failed to embrace his new team and the city of Philadelphia as a whole – alienating players and coaches in the process. After the team’s biggest win of the season (one that saw the near-dead Eagles besting Bill Belichick and the mighty Patriots in New England), reports quickly surfaced of a conversation Murray had with owner Jeffrey Lurie on the plane ride back to Philadelphia. This “conversation”, by all accounts, consisted of Murray complaining about playing time and his role in Kelly’s offense. While Kelly had failed to capitalize on Murray’s strengths as a runner, it was painfully clear there was little left in the tank of the former All Pro.
Still, after Kelly’s abrupt firing a week before the season ended, there was a sense of slight optimism that perhaps the Eagles’ new head coach could salvage Murray, taking advantage of his skill set as a traditional down hill runner. Could Murray’s salty locker room relationship also be salvaged though? Freshly reinstated ‘General Manager’ Howie Roseman had no intention of finding out. In a brilliant front office move, Murray and his undeserving contract were shipped to Tennessee in a deal that saw the Eagles and Titans swap 4th round picks.
While ridding themselves of Murray (and his baggage) greatly benefited the team, there is now a glaring need at the running back position. Ryan Mathews, although effective when healthy, is simply too unreliable at this stage in his career. He is exactly what he was in San Diego – a quality back that cannot manage to stay on the field for a full season. Darren Sproles, despite being a consistent difference maker and fan favorite, is not the answer especially considering he’s 33 years old and might be nearing the end of his career. Kenjon Barner was a pleasant surprise in spurts last season but at 5’9 and with only 34 carries to his name, he is likely not your long term solution.
Heading into the 2016 NFL Draft, there was heavy speculation that the Eagles might address this need by selecting Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott. The Eagles’ decision last Wednesday to move up from the 8th selection to the 2nd selection (and give up a handful of significant draft picks in the process), however, left little doubt that North Dakota State QB Carson Wentz will be the player selected when the Eagles are on the clock Thursday night in Chicago. So what exactly is the RB position looking like when training camp begins this summer? It is possible that the Eagles head into the season with a Mathews/Sproles/Barner rotation but I’d consider this scenario unlikely. Although the Eagles dealt away a number of picks to Cleveland in order to move up, they still hold a respectable seven picks in this year’s draft. While Elliott will certainly be gone by the end of Day 1’s festivities, there are a number of intriguing prospects the Eagles could target on Days 2 and 3.
As far as personal preference goes, look no further than UCLA’s Paul Perkins. The 5’10, 208 lb. Junior ran a 4.54 40 and finished his final season at UCLA with 1,343 yards and 14 TDs. A pass catching threat in open space, with the ability to make multiple defenders miss, Perkins would have no trouble transitioning to a Doug Pederson offense that featured the likes of Jamaal Charles in his previous stint in Kansas City. Another potential option is Utah’s Devontae Booker. A two year starter at Utah, he finished his 2015 campaign with 1,261 rushing yards, 11 TDs and 37 receptions. Booker, like Perkins, would also provide the Eagles with immediate production and versatility at the running back position, as he possesses great vision, balance and is dangerous in open space.
If the Eagles opt to wait until Day 3 to select a running back, one name to keep an eye on is Indiana University’s Jordan Howard. If this name sounds mildly familiar, it might be because former player-turned-analyst Ike Taylor, in his infinite wisdom, mocked Howard to the Eagles at 8th OVERALL a few weeks ago. While Howard is a physically intimidating bruiser that seems to take joy in punishing opposing defenders, he most certainly is not worth a first round selection but should be available on Saturday should the Eagles want to wait to address the RB position.
Make no mistake, Carson Wentz will have (to quote Kanye West) all of the lights on him for the foreseeable future. The team did, after all, pull off a blockbuster deal to ensure they landed their savior that will, in theory, inevitably lead them to the promised land. What cannot be ignored, however, is that no matter how much the running back position is seemingly devalued as time goes on, the Eagles are in immediate need of stability at the position and will look to make up for the costly mistakes of seasons past this weekend.