The very first question head coach Nick Sirianni answered this summer was about the running back rotation in training camp.
He said that pretty much every back would rotate in with the first team and he wasn’t lying.
Throughout the first nine days of practice, we’ve seen D’Andre Swift, Kenny Gainwell, Rashaad Penny, Boston Scott and Trey Sermon all get first-team reps, which makes it nearly impossible to figure out exactly what this rotation is going to look like when the real games start in exactly a month.
But recently running backs coach Jemal Singleton gave a little bit of a hint when asked how the Eagles will decide to use each back situationally.
“I think a lot of it comes down to the skillsets of the room,” Singleton said. “Like, who has the ability to do certain things. There’s gotta be a baseline for all of them that they’re capable of doing. Both run game, pass game and protection game.
“But there’s going to be guys that maybe have a little more ability in a certain area than other guys. What you really want to try to do is maximize a guy’s opportunity for success and put them in situations that they can be successful. … A guy that can do multiple things allows you to be able to do a little bit more with him. A guy who is more specific fits in as more of a role player.”
A year after Miles Sanders was the clear-cut No. 1 running back, the Eagles are very likely going to go with a running back-by-committee approach. That doesn’t mean that one of these backs won’t eventually separate himself, but there’s no guarantee that happens either.
It’s obvious that the Eagles have running backs with different skills:
• Swift is a serious threat to catch the ball out of the backfield but also to line up in the slot and out wide. He has 156 catches in the first three years of his career and has been targeted a ton in training camp. The Eagles haven’t thrown to their backs much under Sirianni but maybe they just didn’t have the right pieces to do it.
• Gainwell came on very strong in the playoffs last year and is hoping that momentum carries into Year 3 in his career. Where Gainwell began to take snaps from Sanders in Year 2 was in the Eagles’ 2-minute drill. It’s clear Sirianni trusts him in those situations and Gainwell has really worked on his pass protection this offseason.
• Penny hasn’t caught the ball much in his career. While some of that was just based on what the Seahawks asked him to do, it’s clear he might be the best pure runner of this group. It’s hard to ignore his 6.2 yards per carry average in the last two years. But it’s equally hard to ignore his lengthy injury history.
• Scott has been with the Eagles since 2018 and has been a nice role player for them and has been more than capable to shoulder the load for a game or two when the team has faced injury. He has some shiftiness to him, had solid hands out of the backfield and is very good at the goal line. Scott is short in stature but that probably helps him get into the end zone. He has 16 rushing touchdowns in the last four years as a part-time player.
• And then there’s Sermon, who is a big-bodied back at 6-0, 215. The Eagles kept him on their team all of last season and barely played him. But it’s clear they like him too. He’s still fighting for a roster spot but he’s done some nice things this summer.
Of course, the fear when you have running backs with different skillsets that you plan to use in different ways is tipping your hand. The offense doesn’t want to become predictable. For instance, if Swift is out there, you don’t want the defense to key in on a pass.
“Like I said, they’ve gotta have a baseline that’s pretty good,” Singleton explained. “Any one of these guys can run the football so I think that’s part of it. We can run the ball with any of them in there. I think there’s guys that maybe have a higher ability to run routes and are more receiver-ish. You can kind of blend it in a way where guys are getting in and playing and not showing our hand on what we’re doing. Because they’ve all gotta be able to protect, they’ve all gotta be able to run the football and at some point, they have to be able to run routes as well.”
While Singleton was with Gainwell, Scott and Sermon last year, he has enjoyed coaching both of his newcomers in Swift and Penny. Singleton scouting both of them coming out of college and he was high on both of them, which probably isn’t a surprise since Penny was a first-rounder and Swift was an early second-rounder.
Both Penny and Swift have had great moments in their careers but have never become true stars for various reasons.
Throughout training camp, the Eagles will be evaluating all of these running backs as they come up with a plan for that rotation. Singleton was asked recently how the careers of Penny and Swift before this training camp factor into that evaluation process.
“It’s a big part of it,” Singleton said. “But I also tell the guys I really kind of don’t care what’s happened in the past but I care a lot about what’s going to happen from here forward. So you’re using that and for me it’s as much, ‘let me evaluate it, let me see how I can help this player get better? What are some of the things I can help him improve on just from a coaching style, techniques I may coach’ just to help him get better. And how can I help his strengths get a little bit stronger.
“That’s a huge part of what we do, that evaluation piece. But guys do change from year in and year out, they get smarter. They do some different things. But what they did in the past is good for me to use but it’s all about what he does moving forward as well.”