Sorting Out the Philadelphia Eagles' Running Back Situation
One of the most enviable professional sports jobs is being the backup quarterback to a star quarterback. Rarely is your name called, and if it is, it is normally with fans wanting you to be the savior.
This year, the Philadelphia Eagles have a similar situation on their hands, except it's at running back. While the coaches continue to ride DeMarco Murray, the fans want Ryan Mathews to overtake him for the starting job.
Although Murray had an historic season last year, he has shifted offenses and does not look like the same back he was last year. Now that the Eagles are on the bye, the time is right to have the backs switch roles and make Mathews the starter -- if they want to.
So is Mathews the better back?
Murray has started 6 games this year, and in 4 of those games he has run for at least 13 carries (8 carries in each of the other 2). In all 6 games Murray has played, Mathews has touched the ball no more than 11 times, with no more than 9 carries in any of the games. In the game Murray missed, Mathews touched the ball 26 times with 24 of those as carries.
Murray has averaged a paltry 3.5 yards per carry this year on his 88 carries while Mathews has turned his 56 carries into 6.1 yards per carry. According to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics, which compare a player's performance to expectation-level in terms of helping his team score, Murray has a terrible -4.48 Rushing NEP, ranking him 30th among 42 backs with at least 50 carries. On the other hand, Mathews ranks 14th with a 3.51 Rushing NEP.
While Mathews clearly looks better as an overall rusher, he also has done so in a much more efficient manner than Murray.
While Murray sits 30th with a -0.05 Rushing NEP per play, Mathews is 15th with a 0.06 Rushing NEP per play.
Both the Rushing NEP and Rushing NEP per play for Murray and Mathews are easy to understand when looking their Rushing Success Rates, the percentage of carries that lead to NEP gains.
Murray does not even crack the top-40 with a 33.7% Rushing Success Rate. Mathews is fourth at 50.9%.
Overall, the Eagles run offense sits in 21st place with a -2.81 Offensive Adjusted Rushing NEP. While the Eagles offensive line is not the same dominant force it was before, it clearly is not holding back Mathews from having success, as he is buoying the team's cumulative metrics.
Due to his stature, Darren Sproles is naturally referred to as the pass-catching back on the team. Currently, he leads the trio of backs with 36 targets. Murray has 28, and Mathews has 15. This opportunity share is skewing what appears to be productivity, but is not exactly that.
Because of the target share, Mathews has the 25th ranked 6.73 Reception NEP among backs with at least 15 targets. Sproles ranks 5th with a 15.43 Reception NEP, and Murray ranks 18th with an 8.54 Reception NEP. The same skew appears when viewing each back's Target NEP; whereas Reception NEP only takes into account receptions, Target NEP accounts for all targets, including interceptions.
Sproles ranks 14th with a 5.97 Target NEP, Murray comes in 16th with a 5.69 Target NEP, and Mathews sits 20th with a 4.91 Target NEP. Although, he still ranks last of the three, this filter begins to show that he is closing the gap between them even with less opportunity.
When viewing efficiency in the passing game, Mathews shows his superiority as he ranks 13th among qualified backs with a 0.45 Reception NEP per target. Sproles sits right behind him with a 0.43 Reception NEP per target, and Murray falls all the way to 27th at 0.31.
Digging deeper to understand this efficiency, Sproles sits atop the list with an 81.8% Reception Success Rate, ranking him second among qualified backs. Mathews is tied for 17th with a 66.7% Reception Success Rate, and Murray is 28th with a 56.5% Reception Success Rate.
While the Eagles are struggling as a passing offense, ranking 25th with a 5.81 Adjusted Passing NEP, Mathews has done his fair share to help improve this rating. If he has more opportunities in the passing game, then the Eagles should see improvement in their overall passing offense.
Showing signs of promise in the passing game is a huge bonus for Mathews, as Chip Kelly prefers to play with the fastest pace possible. Because Mathews shows ability to function in both the pass and run games, he is a valuable asset to the Eagles.
Rest of Season
Looking ahead at the Eagles schedule, they face only two teams in the top-10 for Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP, and only two in the top-10 for Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP as well. The rest of their schedule is much softer against the run and is not stout against the pass either.
While it is never safe to assume rational coaching, Mathews has shown through the beginning of the season that he deserves at least a more prominent role in this offense, if not the starting role.
At the very least, if you are a Murray owner in fantasy leagues you should consider trying to flip him for as much value as possible if his opportunity takes the hit that it should. Additionally, adding Mathews while on his bye week is a smart move to make if he gets the opportunity he deserves.
While our projections rank Murray 14th, Sproles 42nd, and Mathews 44th among backs for the rest of the year, these will drastically change quickly if the roles these backs play adjusts accordingly.
When it comes to Eagles running backs, Mathews is the one to own; hopefully, Chip Kelly and his coaching staff realize that.