What's Going to Happen in the Philadelphia Backfield? - Footballguys

The Footballguys staff offers thoughts on the Philadelphia running back situation

Philadelphia has one of many backfields where the roles are not clearly defined. Since running back is one of the most important positions in fantasy football, it's wise to get as clear a picture as possible on every backfield.

With LeGarrette Blount in Detroit, the door seemed to open for Jay Ajayi to control much of the action in Philadelphia. But Corey Clement is extremely talented. Darren Sproles was also brought back, and the Eagles have a number of other running backs in camp. How does this backfield shake out?

Bloom: Have to assume the team expects Sproles to be his old self after they signed him and he has been listed as one of the three roster locks with Clement and Ajayi. Pencil him in for 7-10 touches a game. Clement was a quality UDFA contributor and he should be good for 6-8 touches a game with room for a little growth. That only leaves 12-18 touches a game for Ajayi. I don't expect the Eagles to adopt a Patriots-like approach to finishing games and give Ajayi a role like 2016 Blount. If Ajayi was going to collect most of the red zone touches, that could give him another route to delivering on his ADP. Sproles and Clement are both viable there and the team has given them a decent amount of red zone opportunities (Clement 16 last year, Sproles 30 in 2016), and Blount only vacates 34 red zone opportunities from last year. Blount was also shockingly ineffective last year (2 touchdowns on 15 carries inside the 5) - where Clement was 2 for 6. If Ajayi gets 12 or more of those and converts 50% or more (he was 5 of 9 in 2016), and scores 2 or 3 from outside the five, he's the range to be a weekly boom/bust RB2. It's possible, but on an RBBC team, Ajayi's ceiling probably isn't high enough to justify his ADP, you're basically drafting him at best case scenario price. Clement and Sproles have best ball appeal. Ajayi is basically an overpriced matchup RB2 or what the heck flex, and Sproles and Clement are weekly desperation plays, albeit ones with high ceilings because of the offense they play in.

Tefertiller: Ajayi is approaching overvalued status given his history of knee issues and lack of workhorse history. I love both Clement and Sproles at cheap prices in PPR leagues.

Hester: At this point, none of these players are draft bargains. As an RB20, Ajayi shouldn't give you the warm-and-fuzzies. As Bloom hinted, he may pay off that price when we look at his season-long stats after the year. But without injury to Clement or Sproles, or a significant hint to how these players will be used, it will never feel good to start Ajayi.

For Clement, the majority of the running backs being taken in his same range have a clearer path to upside and/or have shown their ceilings before. Players like Giovani Bernard, Theo Riddick, and James White all have defined roles (with said roles being valuable in PPR leagues). Players such as D'Onta Foreman, Ty Montgomery, and Bilal Powell have higher ceilings with injuries to teammates. For Clement, his best-case scenario is an injury to Ajayi or Sproles. And even then, he's still sharing the backfield.

That leaves Sproles, who is on the fringe of the top-200 overall. Sure, he could exceed that position, but how exciting is a 35-year-old scatback specialist whose peak is 10 touches in any given game?

Parsons: Jay Ajayi elicits minimal faith as a workhorse back at this stage of his career. Knee issues and volume management are key to optimizing the quality touches he has left. Darren Sproles returning is intriguing considering the quality supporting cast to spread the field and how effective Sproles was in the open field during his prime. However, Sproles is 35 years old (missing most of 2017) and the historical results of running backs at least that age are dicey at best. No back since the merger has caught even 40 passes in a season at Sproles' age. Also, no back at Sproles' age and weighing less than 210 pounds has accrued even 100 rushing yards in a season. The odds are firmly stacked against Sproles having any significant impact.

As for Corey Clement, he was a revelation considering his good but not great prospect profile and undrafted status. Matt Breida and Austin Ekeler were other strong contributors from the undrafted running back class in 2017. The most productive undrafted backs of the last decade, however, have lacked much impact in Year 2 with only Arian Foster and Pierre Thomas rising from contributors in Year 1 to full-fledged fantasy starters in Year 2.

The answer for the Eagles' backfield in 2018 is a week-to-week proposition. When any of the three backs are dinged up, the other two are better RB2 and flex options. Also, if an active duty spot is cleared along the way, watch out for Josh Adams (undrafted free agent from Notre Dame), who has has a quality athletic profile for his 215-pound frame and dual-threat production in college to become a Corey Clement from 2017-type impact from down the depth chart later in the season.

Henry: I'm unlikely to own any of the Eagles backs at ADP unless it's an end-game dart throw on Darren Sproles. As Bloom mentioned, he might be the one with the most clear-cut role of the group, and he's the cheapest.

While I've always liked Ajayi's game, I just don't see enough upside where he's being drafted. He may or may not get red zone touches and it's not a given that he'll be the front-runner for early down work. Both are possible, but not necessarily probable.

The coaches seemed increasingly comfortable with Corey Clement in a variety of situations, but more interestingly in the red zone and on key downs. I suspect that work will split between Clement and Sproles to some degree with Ajayi likely to lead the team in carries. I like Clement's versatility but he's not the receiver or dynamic player that Sproles is, nor is he as good a runner as Ajayi, so he could be marginalized by both pending injury to either.

If Josh Adams shows out in camp, he could unseat Wendell Smallwood for the last roster spot and follow in Clement's footsteps as a quality UDFA with deep dynasty appeal.

Simpkins: I believe this is one of the clearest backfields to avoid that we have in football right now. The touches are spread so many ways that it's a nightmare trying to predict which of these backs will be the best play on a given week. The only one that I would care to own at his current draft price is Darren Sproles. He would be an end-of-the-bench option for me, one that I would cut quickly for a waiver wire option if he is not approaching 10 touches or more per game. Other than Sproles, I am not touching anyone in this backfield unless Jay Ajayi unexpectedly tumbles a few rounds in ADP before draft day.

Wood: I agree with my colleagues about Ajayi being a risky proposition at his current average draft position. The Eagles won a Super Bowl last year by playing a diverse set of players, formations, and play-calls. It’s an offense built around the system, not individual players. Ajayi has the talent and will have weeks that justify his status as a fantasy RB2, but the volatility will be tough to stomach. Outside of best ball (Ajayi is worth the price there), I would avoid him unless his draft status falls over the summer. Corey Clement played exceptionally well last year and had to earn every snap coming into the season as a roster long shot. He’s now secure as the No. 2 and I would be giddy to roster him if Ajayi got hurt. I have to totally disregard Sproles. He’s 35 years old and a gadget player, and probably the most overrated fantasy running back in Footballguys Rankings history. He’ll be lucky to be on the active roster most weeks.

Hicks: It is hard to see much clarity given the depth of choices in the Eagles backfield this season. Jay Ajayi is the only clear choice to receive a significant number of touches, and even he presents a risk at his current draft price. He is in the last year of his rookie deal and it is doubtful that Philadelphia will want to overpay for a running back with the depth they have at the position. He is the only real option for regular fantasy points though and could easily be the workhorse back if he can demonstrate consistency. Next, I would favor Corey Clement, who was a revelation as an undrafted free agent. He lacked the touches to be relied upon consistently but he has the ability to score from anywhere. If something were to happen to Ajayi he could easily be an RB2. The other backs are all fighting for a role and could all easily miss the roster if they need to limit the number of backs on the roster. Darren Sproles is a 35-year-old part-time back who has had injuries in recent seasons. It would be difficult to recommend him in any format. Wendell Smallwood fell down the pecking order and his spot is in jeopardy if he can’t regain the trust of the coaching staff. Donnel Pumphrey is an undersized option who missed his rookie season and needs to stay fit. As a 4th round pick from 2017, he is expendable, but the Eagles want to see a contribution this year.

Howe: Jay Ajayi seems destined to let us down as an RB1 - he's splitting touches in a diverse, capable backfield - but brings a ton of value as an RB2. He's coming to drafters outside the top 20 at the position, and given his efficiency, he carries upside well beyond that. Ajayi has averaged 4.58 yards per carry and 74.0 per game over the last 2 years, after all. And while that production has been bloated and hard to pin down week-to-week, it's still a huge boost when it comes late in drafts. Consider that a handful of similarly-profiled guys who haven't proven much on this level (Derrius Guice, Rashaad Penny, Alex Collins) are still going half a round ahead of him.

He's a much better best ball (or non-PPR) play than a standard one, but there's definitely value to be mined here for any league. Drafters would do well to pounce any time he falls into Round 5, where that high-RB2 ceiling would pay massive dividends.

Beyond Ajayi, I'm not overly interested before Round 11 or so. There are two candidates to fill the pass-game role, so neither Corey Clement nor Darren Sproles projects beyond 30-35 receptions as it stands. Clement carries the most potential there: an Ajayi injury would slot him into a heavier role, while Sproles' production is capped tightly by several factors. Still, I try not to draft for injury what-ifs in single-digit rounds, and I'm not convinced Clement is anything special on the field.

Knotts: I have no interest at Ajayi at his current ADP. The reality is that the Eagles are going to have a split backfield with whoever is determined to be the second running back as Doug Pederson is a guy who loves to have a running back by committee. Since 2013, Pederson's offenses have had one guy have over 204 carries (259 with Jamaal Charles in 2013), this is a backfield that you do not want to pay a premium for.

Corey Clement is the guy that I will be taking a flyer on late in the draft as he enters into his second season after a solid rookie season. Clement's snap counts were only slightly below Ajayi last season, and he should be on the field for 30-40% of the plays even without an injury. His floor is where he is currently being drafted, but his upside is a top-20 running back if Ajayi were to miss time.