WILL EAGLES BREAK TRADITION AND TAKE A RUNNING BACK FIRST? IT IS ANYONE’S GUESS
A good many Eagles fans would love nothing better next week than to see their team use the first of their two first-round draft picks on University of Texas running back Bijan Robinson. \Whether that’s something general manager Howie Roseman is considering if Robinson is there at No. 10 remains to be seen. It’s been a while since the Eagles saw fit to take a running back in the first round. The last time it happened was 1986 when they drafted Keith Byars out of Ohio State. Reagan was president, The Cosby Show was at the top of the Nielsen ratings, sweat suits ruled fashion and a former Korean War Army sergeant named James David “Buddy’’ Ryan was in his second year as coach of the Eagles. The day before the ’86 draft, Ryan called Byars, who had missed much of his final college season with a broken bone in his foot, a “medical reject’’. The next day, he took Byars with the 10th overall pick. Byars spent seven seasons with the Eagles and became one of the league’s top pass-catching backs. Robinson is the draft’s No. 1-rated running back. He’s considered one of the top five or six players overall in this draft. But it’s unlikely he’ll go that high because running backs have been significantly devalued in today’s pass-happy pro game. Just four have been taken in the first round in the last four drafts. Not many teams are looking for a 20-carry-a-game back. Most, including the Eagles, prefer a running back-by-committee approach. “There aren’t that many, quote, three-down backs anymore,’’ said Mike Mayock, the former Las Vegas Raiders general manager. “You’ve got bigger, stronger guys that can run the ball and be the primary focus of your four-minute offense, which is still important in the fourth quarter.
You’ve got your third-down change-of-pace guys, who are really important. But they typically have a different body type and excel as pass-catchers and pass-protectors. “There are so many guys coming out of college now who can do both. And there’s never a lack of either. So, it’s easy for an NFL coach, even if he gets an injury, to say, OK, I can go get a first-down back. Or I can go get a change-of-pace guy. Or if he’s really hurting, he can shift his offense a little bit to put a different focus on the run game.’’
Eighty-five running backs have been taken in the last four drafts. Fifty-nine of them, or nearly 70 percent, have gone in rounds 4 through 7. The Eagles finished fifth in the league in rushing (147.6 yards per game) and had the fourth highest run-play percentage (49.7). Even after letting 1,200-yard rusher Miles Sanders leave via free agency, they hardly have a crying need for a running back. They’re high on 2021 fifth-round pick Kenneth Gainwell, who led the team in rushing in the playoffs and is a dangerous receiving threat who can line up anywhere in the formation. They also signed former Seattle Seahawk Rashaad Penny, who has missed 31 games with injuries the last three years, but averaged 6.2 yards per carry on 176 attempts the last two seasons. Their biggest needs are on the defensive side of the ball, where they lost five starters to free agency and need reinforcements on the defensive line and secondary.
But the thought of giving quarterback Jalen Hurts yet another weapon on offense to befuddle opposing defenses with certainly has its appeal. “Here’s where I think the conversation is with the Eagles as far as Robinson is concerned,’’ said Mayock, a Philadelphia-area native who spent 15 years as the NFL Network’s senior draft analyst before becoming the Raiders’ GM. “You’re at 10. You have certain priorities. You have your own feeling on the Georgia kid (defensive tackle Jalen Carter, who could slide to the Eagles because of character issues). “Howie has a history of moving both up and back, so we don’t know whether they’re going to be staying at 10. I’m sure he’s exploring every possibility there is. He’s already talked to every team in front of him and he’s talked to a bunch of teams behind him. He’s setting the table for all of the possibilities as far as how the board may look when it gets to the sixth, seventh and eighth picks. At that point, he’s going to start to know what he wants to do (at 10). “You have to look at every scenario, including your board getting blown up and the two or three guys you had targeted at 10 being gone. If Robinson is still there and you can’t move back, do you take him? I mean, do you take a running back who might be the sixth best player on your board? Or are you going to take an offensive tackle or edge rusher who might be No. 17 on your board because you need one of those more than you need a running back? “At that point, it becomes a really difficult conversation. Because every time you draft a guy for need who isn’t ranked as high as other people, then you’re diluting the overall talent level of your team. And trust me, I know about that from experience. “So, if you think he’s a special guy and you don’t necessarily need one specific position, I’ve always believed in controlled value. Take him. You can move him. You can do a lot of other things with other teams. Worst-case scenario, how would he look suiting up as an Eagle along with all of those other weapons they have out wide and at tight end? On top of that, if Jalen can give the ball to somebody more often than he keeps it, you’re in better shape.’’ *