NFL draft questions: Who will Philadelphia Eagles start at running back?
The manner the Philadelphia Eagles’ NFL draft unfolded might have been bred from coincidence or it could have been the product of a detailed plan. It’s probably a bit of both.
The Eagles’ selections last week lined up with the weak spots on the roster, suggesting fans should take any “best player available” chatter emanating from the NovaCare Complex with a dose of skepticism. Entering the draft, many experts agreed on the Birds’ most glaring needs: Edge rusher, cornerback, running back and wide receiver.
The Eagles’ first six picks? Edge rusher, cornerback, cornerback, wide receiver, running back, wide receiver.
That’s not the result of pure happenstance. But it also doesn’t mean the Eagles reached for players out of necessity. There is evidence that signals the team approached this draft with the long-term in mind; that view might explain why they took Washington cornerback Sidney Jones, who is recovering from an Achilles tear, in the second round and selected shifty San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey in the fourth round instead of a three-down back.
The nature of the Birds’ haul — one that addressed needs but not head-on — leaves Philly with an array of questions as they look ahead to the season. Perhaps the most pressing one is this: Who will start at running back?
The Eagles’ situation in the backfield is a bit messy, even as the dust clears from the draft. Though the Birds haven’t cut 2016 starter Ryan Mathews yet, pundits expect them to cut so once the ball-carrier recovers from neck surgery.
And while Pumphrey racked up an FBS record 6,405 career rushing yards at San Diego State, many assume the 5-foot-8, 176-pound ball-carrier is more suited for a complimentary role in an NFL backfield. Darren Sproles, the Eagles’ veteran back, fits the same bill as Pumphrey, and 2016 fifth-round pick Wendell Smallwood remains unproven.
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Evidence of the murkiness crystallized at a post-draft press conference Saturday night. Executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman faced a question about the lack of a three-down running back on the Eagles’ roster, and he didn’t vouch for Pumphrey as an option or talk up any returning player.
Instead, his initial reaction was to say the team signed an undrafted free agent (Roseman wouldn’t specific, but Wisconsin running back Corey Clement tweeted he joined the Eagles).
Clement might emerge as a surprise contributor, but it seems unusual for the Eagles to lean on an undrafted player as a talking point.
While Roseman quickly backtracked from a discussion on Clement, his assessment of the current group of running backs didn’t sound too convincing.
“By the same token, we’re really excited to make sure that we got Pumphrey, and then we like the players that are in the building,” Roseman said. “We’ve got Ryan, we’ve got Darren, Wendell, and Byron Marshall is a guy who can cross-train and play receiver and running back, as well. We’ve got some talent at that position, and we’re excited to see them.”
That’s plenty of names, but there’s not a clear-cut starter among them.
The Eagles could scour the remaining free agent market to sign a veteran — Jamaal Charles, perhaps? — or pull off a trade sometime before the season begins. If not, though, Philly needs to figure out who is going to line up behind 24-year-old quarterback Carson Wentz.
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