With Ryan Mathews yet to take the field at training camp, concern over the Eagles' depth at running back is looking more and more legitimate.
Rookie Wendell Smallwood missed practice Wednesday with a quad strain, and Doug Pederson told reporters Smallwood is "still a few days away from being back out there." That leaves the Eagles with Darren Sproles, Kenjon Barner, and undrafted rookie Byron Marshall as camp bodies. Barner may have the most to gain while Mathews and Smallwood are sidelined.
On Monday, Offensive Coordinator Frank Reich referenced the buzz that has existed around Barner since this coaching staff arrived.
"When we got here everyone was in my ear about how good this guy is going to be a player, and that's what we're seeing." Reich and Pederson both praised Barner's ability with the ball in his hands, but perhaps most telling is Reich's comment "He's doing great in protections."
One of the least mentioned - though not for lack of importance - jobs of a running back is to pass protect, and it sounds like Barner has that part of the job under control. This is doubly important for a young player and one who may be called upon to bolster the team's suspect pass protection of the last two seasons. Of course, if Barner wins a bigger workload this season, he'll then have to carry it. This is nothing to take for granted for a player with 34 career rushing attempts in the NFL. We all saw the toll a monstrous 2014 workload took on DeMarco Murray. There is reason for optimism though. In his senior year at Oregon, Barner carried the ball 278 times for 1,767 yards. That total would have placed him 12th in rushes among college ballcarriers across the nation last season.
"I thought he handled it well. His conditioning is good. It's improving. He got a little tired towards the end of practice, but, again, that's just the nature of the camp practice," Pederson said Wednesday. The extra touches are giving Barner more chances to improve as well. "This will be a good film for him to watch: a good practice tape for him to watch to be able to make the necessary corrections."
Barner will be in good hands. Pederson knows his way around running backs. The Kansas City Chiefs finished in the top 10 teams in rushing offense each of the three years Pederson was the team's offensive coordinator. Those years, particularly 2015, prepared Pederson well for the challenges he'll face this season if the Eagles' backfield struggles to stay healthy. While star Jamaal Charles managed to play in only five games, Pederson got production out of Knile Davis, Charcandrick West, and Spencer Ware. The Chiefs rotating backfield, while frustrating fantasy owners, managed to finish sixth in the league in rushing. This year in Philadelphia may be analogous.
Speaking about last season, Pederson said, "Even in training camp, when we didn't let Jamaal take a lot of live snaps, we got our twos and threes and our fourth guy really a lot of time. This is valuable time."