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Breaking down Eagles' running back competition after three weeks


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Breaking down Eagles' running back competition after three weeks

By Reuben Frank, Eagles Insider  Published August 14, 2023


Three weeks into training camp and coming out of the first preseason game, the Eagles’ muddled running back picture is starting to come into focus.

Boston Scott and Kenny Gainwell didn’t play Saturday night in Baltimore and D’Andre Swift started but played just six snaps and left the game after an impressive 20-yard run. That left Rashaad Penny, Trey Sermon and Kennedy Brooks for the bulk of the game.

Penny had nine carries – all in the game’s first 23 minutes – and got 29 snaps. Sermon also had nine carries and got 27 snaps. Brooks got four carries, all in the fourth quarter.

What does it all mean?

Swift and Gainwell are roster locks. They're both good runners and excellent receivers. Swift has been the best back in camp, and Gainwell isn’t far behind. They're both versatile, able to play on all downs and comfortable in various spots.

Neither is going anywhere.  

Penny ran for 34 yards Saturday night with a long gainer of 10 yards and a 3.8 average, and Sermon was 9-for-21 with a long gainer of eight yards and a 2.3 average. Neither put up gaudy numbers, but they were also working behind deep backup offensive linemen and there wasn't a whole lot of room to run. Both seemed to get the yards that were there. Sermon gets points for his physical nature, picking up a couple Ravens blitzes.

Brooks ran four times for 15 yards and lost a fumble three days after fumbling near the goal-line in practice.

The one thing the Eagles want to see from Penny is health. His career has been derailed by injuries and despite a 5.7 career rushing average – tied for highest in history by a running back – he’s averaged only 57 carries per year in his five NFL seasons and has much to prove. 

So far, so good. If Penny is healthy, it will be very difficult for the Eagles to release him.

That leaves Scott and Sermon, and considering how the Eagles feel about Scott – he’s in his sixth year here and has proven to be a terrific goal-line runner, willing blocker and jack-of-all-trades – Sermon is going to have to go out and really outplay Scott to secure the fourth and final running back spot on the 53-man roster.

The one thing Sermon has going for him is his size and physical style of play. The Eagles kept him on the 53 all last year for a reason. And he was a 3rd-round pick just two years ago. But right now, he’s the odd man out just because the Eagles clearly aren’t going to cut ties with Swift or Gainwell, and Sermon will have to significantly outplay both Penny and his 5.7 career average and Scott and his 20 career touchdowns to make the team.

Maybe he can. But it’s going to be an uphill battle.

If the Eagles do release Sermon, they would undoubtedly try to add him to the practice squad, although he could be a candidate to get claimed.

But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves.

Nick Sirianni said Saturday night that he’ll continue rotating the backs in the preseason games, giving them all a chance to play and show what they can do.

"We wanted to see Rashaad go (vs. the Ravens),” he said. "Rashaad hasn’t played in a little bit, and Trey hasn’t played in a little bit. So we wanted to see them go a little bit. 

"My plan with the backs … I always like those guys getting tackled, so the first time they get tackled isn't in Game One. So next game (vs. the Browns Thursday), Boston or Kenny will get a couple carries, like Swift did today, and the next game the other ones will get a couple carries. 

"So it was just D’Andre’s turn tonight to do it. That’s what went into that. That’s my philosophy with backs.”

This is all a huge departure for the Eagles.

Miles Sanders was the clear No. 1 back to open the season the last four years, in 2018 it was Jay Ajayi, in 2017 LeGarrette Blount, in 2016 Ryan Mathews, 2015 DeMarco Murray and before that LeSean McCoy and Brian Westbrook.

This is really the first time since the three-headed monster in 2003 with Westbrook, Correll Buckhalter and Duce Staley – Swift’s one-time position coach in Detroit – the Eagles have taken this sort of approach.

The Eagles ranked third in the NFL at 4.8 yards per carry in 2003, went 12-4 and reached the NFC Championship Game and the three backs combined for 2,465 scrimmage yards and 29 touchdowns.

With the right people, it works. And the Eagles clearly believe they have the right people.


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I’m not sure it’ll be difficult for the team to cut Penny. He’s very talented no doubt but he’s not getting paid a lot and so far he’s not flashed much from what we’ve heard. I don’t think he’s going to get cut but at this point I’m not sure it would be a surprise if he did.

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