Without LeSean McCoy, How Are the Eagles Going to Address Their Backfield?
Over the past two seasons, no running back has more rushing attempts than LeSean McCoy -- his 626 attempts since the start of 2013 are 15 more than DeMarco Murray's 609. Marshawn Lynch has the third highest total, but he's well behind McCoy and Murray at 581.
Even in a passing league, Chip Kelly has kept his focus on the ground, and McCoy has been the biggest beneficiary. After Tuesday night though, LeSean McCoy is no longer a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, so those rushing attempts in Philadelphia are going to have to come from somewhere else.
Some, both in Philadelphia and around the league, questioned the move to give Chip Kelly full control of personnel decisions, and he’s certainly made a splash with his moves so far. Before the trade even took place, Kelly had cut ties with Trent Cole and Cary Williams earlier in the day. Those names and salaries outweighed the production in 2014, but Kelly clearly isn't afraid to shape his roster to exactly how he wants it.
Philadelphia had the 12th lowest pass-to-run ratio in the league last season, so it's not as if the Eagles will suddenly abandon the run without McCoy. Replacing Shady might not be as difficult as it would seem for Philadelphia, too. McCoy’s production fell off significantly by our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric last year, just one season after being worth 0.12 Rush NEP per attempt, which led the league for backs with at least 200 attempts. McCoy, in 2014, was worth -0.02 per attempt in 2014. He also had the sixth lowest Success Rate -- the percentage of attempts that result in positive NEP -- of the 17 backs to carry the ball at least 200 times last year.
Philadelphia has a strong and athletic offensive line -- though it was plagued by injuries in 2014 -- that can make running lanes bigger and easier to hit for whichever back is running behind it. That doesn’t mean just any back will produce if thrown on the field, though, and there's still at least 250 carries that need to be accounted for in the 2015 offense. So what might Philadelphia do in the backfield going forward?
As currently constructed, the top two backs on the Eagles roster are Darren Sproles and Chris Polk. Sproles was a revelation of sorts after coming over in a trade from the New Orleans Saints for just a fifth-round pick last offseason. After a down year in 2013 with New Orleans, Sproles led all Eagles' backs in 2014 with 0.21 Rushing NEP per attempt in a similar role. With only three more carries over 2013, Sproles increased his total Rushing NEP from -0.8 to 11.96. He was also the most successful back in the red zone last season (55.6% touchdown rate), which is part of the reason McCoy was used less in those situations as the season progressed (McCoy’s own numbers did not help him). But Sproles will be entering his age-32 season, and along with his skill set, he’s not likely to suddenly become the lead back.
There’s enough unknown about Polk to make him an intriguing option to take a step forward. Kelly and the Eagles appear to like the former undrafted free agent enough to keep him around, but the problem has been injures. On skill set alone, Polk was considered one of the more talented backs in the 2012 draft class, but a shoulder injury caused him to not be selected. In 2014 he dealt with hamstring and ankle issues that placed him on the injury report seven times, though only one was worse than probable. Polk missed half of his rookie season with a toe injury and spent three weeks as questionable with a shoulder injury in 2013.
When Polk was on the field in 2014, he was successful. Though he only had 46 attempts, his 0.04 Rushing NEP per attempt was the 17th-most efficient for all backs. Polk is a good bet to receive a bigger role in the offense if he can stay on the field, though it’s unlikely to be an additional 200 carries.
There’s always danger in bringing in free agent running backs. There’s also danger in trading away your starting running back for a linebacker coming off a torn ACL -- some risks are worth taking at the right price.
What the McCoy deal also accomplished was freeing up almost $8 million worth of cap space for the Eagles. Following the releases of Williams and Cole earlier in the day, Philadelphia now has the fifth-most cap space this offseason.
Much of that money can be used for things like re-signing Brandon Graham, a starting cornerback (or really any position in the secondary), and there’s plenty of space there to bring in a back. From now until the start of free agency, the Eagles will probably be linked to every available free agent running back because there’s a clear hole and we love speculation and playing matchmaker. Already during the process of this article being been put together, “rumblings” of interest in Mark Ingram have been thrown out into the world.
Two names, though, were the first to be thrown around on Tuesday night: DeMarco Murray and C.J. Spiller. On the surface, both suggestions make sense. Murray just came off a season that netted him Offensive Player of the Year, and signing him away from the Dallas Cowboys would appear to be a shot to weaken a division rival. Spiller is a now displaced free agent due to the trade that sent McCoy to Spiller’s former team.
Both of those backs also come with their own drawbacks. Kelly just jettisoned a 26-year-old overpaid back with the most carries over the past two years, so it’s unlikely the Eagles will pay a premium for similar back who’s five months older. Before his shoulder injury ended his season, Spiller was worth -0.2 NEP per attempt, the fifth worst rate among 79 running backs with at least 40 carries.
A more likely free agent signing for the Eagles could be an overlooked back like Frank Gore, or an underlooked one like Roy Helu. While it’s fun to try to replace a start with another, that shouldn’t be a route the Eagles are expected to go.
Without an inclusion of draft picks in the return for McCoy, it seems more likely the Eagles will be using their current picks to replenish the roster instead of making a run to trade up for Marcus Mariota. There should be a ton of value at running back in this year’s draft class. Like the approach to free agency, we shouldn’t expect a flash to be made. Philadelphia will probably look elsewhere with the 20th pick than Todd Gurley or Melvin Gordon. The Eagles could start looking in the second round for a back, where options like Boise State’s Jay Ajayi -- who ranks highly in athletic measurables -- or Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah come in play.
The decision to trade away LeSean McCoy left a big hole in the backfield for the Eagles. It also left multiple options for that hole to be filled. There’s no one answer for what Philadelphia should do, and there’s no saying there’s only one thing the Eagles will do. The Eagles made a major move to create the need in the backfield, and the move to fill it is almost guaranteed to not be as big. That also doesn’t mean they won’t be better off.