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What Kellen Moore's history tells us about Saquon Barkley and Kenny Gainwell's roles

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If you’re assuming Kenny Gainwell is going to be a forgotten man in the Eagles’ offense in 2024, you may want to think again.

Gainwell is the only running back left from the 2023 Eagles. D’Andre Swift signed with the Bears after a Pro Bowl season, Boston Scott – an Eagle since 2018 - signed with the Rams and rarely used Rashaad Penny is now a Panther.

And with Saquon Barkley now in the mix, it’s easy to just assume the former Giant is going to get nearly all the running back touches and Gainwell will be relegated to a carry here or there and the occasional 3rd-down catch.

And Barkley can certainly handle a heavy load. He averaged 20.1 touches per game in six years with the Giants, the 3rd-highest average in the league since 2018 among 108 backs with at least 250 touches. Only Christian McCaffrey (21.5 per game) and Josh Jacobs (20.6) averaged more touches per game over the last six years.

Even last year, when he was injured much of the year and not as effective as in his big 2022 season, Barkley averaged 20.6 touches per game, 3rd-most in the league (again behind McCaffrey and Jacobs).

Gainwell, meanwhile, has been mainly a change-of-pace back in his three years with the Eagles. The former 5th-round pick has 291 touches as a back-up to Miles Sanders and Swift, averaging 4.4 yards on 205 carries with 86 catches for 605 more yards and with 12 touchdowns. That’s about six touches per game.

And maybe that’s where he’ll wind up again in 2024. But it’s interesting to look at what new Eagles offensive coordinator Kellen Moore did with the running back rotation in his four years as offensive coordinator with the Cowboys and one year with the Chargers.

Moore had a running back in Dallas in Ezekiel Elliott who is similar to Barkley in his ability to handle a heavy workload. His 2,421 touches since he entered the league in 2016 are 236 more than any other back, and his 20.2 career average is almost identical to Barkley’s 20.1. Elliott, Barkley and Jacobs are the only backs since 2016 to average 20 touches per game (minimum 250 touches).

But the one thing that jumps out at you about those Cowboys offenses under Moore from 2019 through 2022 is how many touches Tony Pollard got.

Even with Elliott averaging nearly 300 touches per season under Moore, Pollard averaged 158 touches per season during the same span.

The Cowboys were the only team during Moore’s four years as offensive coordinator that had two running backs with 600 touches.

So even though Elliott had the 4th-most touches in the league in four years under Moore, Pollard still averaged 10 touches and 58 yards per game. Now, by the end of that period, Pollard had become Elliott’s equal as far as production, so that’s part of the equation. But well before that, he had a significant role as RB2.

And both Pollard and Gainwell were productive in their roles. Of the backs with 600 or more touches from 2019 through 2022 Elliott was fifth in the NFL in rushing and Pollard’s 5.1 average was 2nd-highest, behind Nick Chubb.

Now, you can make an argument that Pollard is simply more talented than Gainwell, and that’s fair. He did eventually develop into a Pro Bowl back. But as far as yards per touch go, Pollard’s career 5.3 yards per touch is just above Gainwell’s 5.2 figure. Factor Gainwell’s postseason production into the equation and he’s above Pollard. He just hasn’t played as much.

And Gainwell is one of only three RBs in the NFL who’s averaged at least 4.3 yards per carry with at least 20 catches in each of the last three seasons. The others are McCaffrey and Aaron Jones. Pretty good company.

But it’s not really about who’s the better back but about Moore’s philosophy.

And what’s telling is the fact that Moore kept the same pattern last year with the Chargers. Lead back Austin Ekeler had 230 touches and over 1,000 scrimmage yards in Moore’s one year as Chargers OC, but RB2 Joshua Kelley  got 115 touches and turned them into 437 yards.

So what can we expect from Gainwell?

He’s been a solid back the last three years, averaging 97 touches and 500 scrimmage yards per season. In Pollard’s first two seasons under Moore – while he was clearly still Elliott’s backup – he averaged a very similar 115 touches and 595 scrimmage yards per season. 

Barkley is only 27 but he’s over 1,500 career touches, and we all know the history of running backs with that kind of mileage who get into that 27, 28, 29 range. They almost always begin fading. Spelling Barkley with a healthy dose of Gainwell could help the Eagles prevent or at least delay that.

It’s too early to tell exactly what Moore’s plan is for RB2, but if his history in Dallas and L.A. is any indication, we may see more of Gainwell in 2024. Not less.

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