LeSean McCoy established himself as one of the best running backs in the NFL with his great 2011 season. He was productive, durable, and dynamic. That's a great combination for a runner. Eagles fans were spoiled by having a terrific player like Brian Westbrook in the backfield for all those years, but it actually looks like the team upgraded with McCoy. That's really shocking when you think about it.
Last year the primary backup was Ronnie Brown. Things started well, but there was that horrible moment in the Niners game when Brown fumbled the ball on a botched trick play pass attempt. The play call wasn't good, but it was a run-pass option. A veteran like Brown should have known better than to try and make the throw. The play wasn't working. Just go down and settle for a field goal. Instead the ball was recovered by the Niners and the Eagles lost to them by a single point.
Brown didn't get a touch for the next two weeks. He was in Andy Reid's version of Siberia. Brown was then traded to Detroit, but that fell apart after the Eagles found out that newly aquired runner Jerome Harrison had a brain tumor. Brown came back to the Eagles and was allowed to move from Siberia to northern Alaska. He started to get a touch, but it wasn't until December that he once again got multiple touches in a game.
Dion Lewis had a good summer, but was the number three back in the season. He had 11 touches all year long, until the season finale. Lewis had 12 carries for 58 yards and a touchdown in that game. He looked fast and got everyone's attention. Lewis finished the season with 23 carries for 102 yards. To put those numbers in context, Westbrook had 46 carries for 193 yards in his rookie year of 2002.
With a "young veteran" like McCoy and a young backup like Lewis, I fully expected the Eagles to hit free agency and pick up a veteran backup. I thought they'd go grab Joseph Addai or Justin Forsett, someone like that. The point wasn't to get a great back, but someone who had an NFL track record and could play if needed. Clearly McCoy is going to get 90 percent of the carries.
The Eagles threw me a curveball. Not just any ol' "Uncle Charlie" curveball. They threw a Dwight Gooden "Lord Charles" curveball. The team did not add a veteran runner. They instead drafted Bryce Brown in the seventh round and then signed undrafted free agent Chris Polk. Of all the scenarios, I did not anticipate Dion Lewis needing to school the guys coming in to compete for the backup running back spot.
To say Brown is a bit raw is like saying the sun is a tad warm. Or that Andy Reid kinda likes the passing game. Brown is a major project. Polk was a workhorse runner and incredibly productive at Washington, but he reportedly has some attitude issues and also needs a lot of work as a blocker. In his own way, he is a project.
So what is Reid thinking? What is going on?
Reid hasn't really given an interview where he's said anything other than the obvious comments about how he likes the young players. I would love to know what his line of thinking is behind the youth movement.
It could be that Reid is tired of stop-gap solutions and feels that developing your own running backs is the way to go. He's got Lewis with some experience. Polk and Brown have NFL ability. There is also Graig Cooper in the mix, an undrafted player from 2011 who did some nice things last summer. It isn't as if the cupboard is totally bare.
I also wonder about Bryce Brown as a guy that Reid got excited about. Running backs coach Ted Williams went and worked him out. He was really impressed with Brown's combination of size, speed, and movement skills. Brown looked like an NFL guy to him. Then Reid went and did some checking on Brown's character. Reid talked to college coaches who worked with Brown to find out the skinny on what happened (insert Reid/skinny joke here).
The coaches said the right things and Reid felt comfortable with the character side of things. Combine that with Williams very positive report and Reid watching Brown's Tennessee game tape. You can see where Reid would start to fall in love with the notion of Brown as an Eagle.
Over the years Reid has had some players that he fell for, so to speak. They range in value and position. Reid loved Kevin Kolb, Brian Westbrook, Nate Ilaoa, and Nick Cole, among others. Some of Reid's guys pan out. Others don't. I can't say for a fact that Brown is a Reid guy, but it sure feels that way.
The Eagles could have been planning to use a late pick on Brown. The goal would be to have Lewis, Brown, Cooper, and a good UDFA runner battle it out. Surely someone would emerge as a good backup running back. If the situation didn't pan out, the Eagles could always find a veteran on the street in July or August.
Let the kids have the mini-camps and passing camps to learn and show what they can do. See who is grasping the playbook. Find out who can pass protect. Get the guys ready for training camp so that you can quickly get a feel for them at Lehigh and know if you can stick with the young players or if you must go add a veteran.
One of the keys here is to not think of Brown as a seventh round player. That is where he was picked, but it wasn't because of talent. He should have been a second or third round pick based on potential. The fact he quit two colleges and had less than 500 yards rushing in his college career is what killed his value. And rightfully so.
Is it really possible that Reid could consider Brown for the backup spot? That is a really tough question. Part of me says that would be a terrible decision. The Eagles need to have a big year. This isn't the time to experiment with a young player with such a strange background.
Another part of me thinks about Chris Ivory. He was kicked out of Washington State after three years. He had rushed for just over 500 yards in that time. He then went to Tiffin, a D-2 school in Ohio. Ivory ran for 223 yards there before getting hurt. He was undrafted after that season, but signed by the Saints. Due to injuries, Ivory played as a rookie and ran for 716 yards and five touchdowns. He averaged 5.2 yards per carry. Ivory didn't have the background to be such a key player, but he had size, speed, and talent.
Brown has a very similar build to Ivory. Brown is faster, while Ivory is a better power runner. Ivory is a pure runner. Brown has good hands and can be a factor in the passing game as well as being a good runner. Each guy had some issues that hurt his value. Ivory was able to take his NFL potential and turn that into production. Can Brown do the same?
I'm sure Ivory's story isn't lost on Reid. I don't think he went looking for his version of Ivory, but he may have found him anyway.
I do think Reid is somewhat looking back to 2003 when Duce Staley, Correll Buckhalter, and Westbrook made up the three-headed monster. Those guys split touches pretty evenly. That will not happen this time around. McCoy is the feature back. Lewis could play the Westbrook role of the smaller guy with an elusive running style. Polk and Brown would battle it out for the Buckhalter role of the bigger back. Both guys are in the 220-pound range, about what Buckhalter was.
Reid has publicly said that he felt he overused McCoy last year. Reid wants to mix in the backup runners more often this year. That is certainly fine by me. McCoy is great, but you need to play the backups. Giving those guys a couple of carries each game isn't that hard, but it could help the offense. It mixes in different styles of runners and that forces the defense to adjust on those plays. It also keeps McCoy from extra hits and wear and tear.
If this plans blows up and the young players struggle this spring and summer, Reid and Howie Roseman will hit the phones and dig up some veteran runner who can come in and be a safe backup type. There are always experienced running backs to be found. For now, let's see what the kids can do.