The Tale Of Two Rookie Running Backs

Once the pads go on, it’s a whole new story in the NFL as we’ve learned once again watching the running back picture unfold for the Eagles. In the spring, minus pads and with no tackling, fourth-round pick Donnel Pumphrey impressed with his quickness, the ease with which he caught the football, and the burst he showed in the open field. Undrafted rookie Corey Clement? He was just hoping for reps.

When Training Camp opened and the preseason followed, the story changed. Clement was the one who showed the most with the ball in his hands and Pumphrey worked to find his niche.

Both made the 53-man roster, but Clement was the one who dressed for the opener at Washington. Pumphrey was inactive, on the sidelines, as the Eagles won 30-17.

The story took a new twist this week when Pumphrey went on Injured Reserve with a torn hamstring that he suffered in practice. Clement, meanwhile, said he had his practice reps increase and even took some with the starting offense.

So as the Eagles prepare for Week 2 in Kansas City, a rookie running back has a chance to make an impact on special teams for sure, as he did in his debut, and perhaps in the offense. It’s just that the rookie running back isn’t Pumphrey, the all-time leading ground gainer in NCAA history.

It’s Clement, the guy who didn’t draw a sniff in seven rounds of the spring draft.

Funny how the picture keeps changing, isn’t it?

“I’m just ready for whatever they want me to do,” Clement said. “Playing special teams is a big part of the game and I just wanted to go out there and give it my all and try to make a difference.”

Clement made two tackles on kickoff coverage, including one on the opening kickoff of the game. He showed speed and commitment down the field and he was physical and challenging at the point of the attack. It was the kind of performance that earns more trust and more reps. It was a great first step for Clement as he stepped right into the speed of his first regular-season game and blew the doors off in coverage.

“The tempo was fine,” he said. “I had no problems with that. We practice fast. I’m going as fast as I can on every play. There isn’t any margin for error for me.”

It is conceivable that the Eagles will turn to Clement sooner rather than later as they look to build a running game that struggled in the preseason and again at Washington. Clement ran with authority in the exhibition games, turning speed into power as he ran to and through holes. He’s got a little bit of a wiggle to his game, too, and hands that were better than anticipated in the receiving game. Plus, Clement looked like he handled the pass protection part of the game very well, a key element for Eagles running backs to have under control.

Now, things will be a lot more complicated against Kansas City. This isn’t the preseason, so the blitz packages are more exotic and the pre-snap movement much more disguised. Washington generated a lot of pressure on quarterback Carson Wentz last week with blitzes against the running backs, taking advantage of some missed assignments and poor technique offered, in some instances, by LeGarrette Blount and Wendell Smallwood. They need to be better in the pass pro game, as they’ve acknowledged in the days after that victory.

The running backs are going to play a critical role in Sunday’s game with how they help in pass protection and the way they attack a Kansas City defense that can be had on the ground. Clement may be moving up the depth chart, if not this week then soon. The Eagles want to find out about Clement and see if he can aid the effort on the ground.

Pumphrey, meanwhile, needs to get his hamstring right and then, for however long he is on Injured Reserve – it could be for the entire season – get his body back. Pumphrey touched the ball more than 1,200 times in his four-year career at San Diego State. He was an all-time great there, and then he was drafted by the Eagles and the coaching staff asked him to learn the slot receiver position along with the running back position and all that goes with it, and also the kick return game. It was football overload and maybe it had an impact on Pumphrey’s less-than-ideal preseason.

The Tale of Two Eagles Rookie Running Backs demonstrates again how the game changes when the pads go on and the action is live. Until then, what do you really know? Even after the pads go on, as we’re finding out, the story morphs in another direction week by week. Clement is rising and Pumphrey is rehabbing a torn hamstring. Who would have ever thought that’s the way it would play out when the Eagles completed their draft weekend back in the spring?

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