A friend of mine invited me to the Linc for a private event during Day 3 of the 2016 NFL Draft. He told me there would be some Philadelphia Eagles players there to sign autographs and that everyone in attendance would be on camera to make the announcement for the Eagles’ 5th round picks. I, of course, accepted the invite.
None of us in the crowd knew what the pick would be beforehand. I was hoping it would be a running back (what a surprise, right), and as always, I had done a good amount of research on the running back prospects in that class. When it was time for the selection announcement, it ended up being a running back after all.
Wendell Smallwood, Running Back, West Virginia. Ironically, he was one of the running back prospects I wasn’t really familiar with, so I did some research and watched as much video on him that I could.
I wasn’t too impressed. I mean for a 5th round selection there shouldn’t be much that jumps out at you anyways. But usually when it comes to late round RBs I look for one or two traits that catch my eye that could translate well to the pro level, whether it’s vision, agility, receiving ability, etc. With Smallwood, I didn’t see anything that I’d consider as great. I saw a player with good speed, good quickness, deceptive power, solid route running ability as a receiver out of the backfield and slot, and solid vision. He knew how to run at the right angles at the 2nd and 3rd levels. But his vision was too inconsistent, he didn’t have reliable hands (fumbles and dropped passes), and he needed a lot of work in pass protection. What probably frustrated me the most was that for someone with his speed and quickness, he’s not elusive at all, despite what Mike Mayock said in the video above. Smallwood prefers a power running style so he’s not really looking to make defenders miss, but he lacks the functional strength to consistently fight through contact and break tackles. In other words, he didn’t show an ability to force missed tackles, which is one of the traits that separates great running backs from everyone else. All that being said, Duce Staley liked the kid a lot and it’s assumed that he had a part in Smallwood being drafted by the team, so I assumed that there was something he was seeing that I wasn’t.
After an injury-riddled rookie season, 2017 was Smallwood’s opportunity. He reportedly was playing very well in training camp and was projected to be the lead back in the rotation, despite the signing of LeGarrette Blount. But he got hurt once again in the preseason and missed a good chunk of time before the regular season began. Then he struggled the first few weeks of the regular season, with the Giants game in Week 3 being the only game where he averaged over 4 yards a carry (12 carries for 71 yards). His chances dwindled, and by Week 11 he was a constant inactive for the remainder of the year after the acquisition of Jay Ajayi.
Coming into this season, Smallwood was written off by plenty of people, including myself, as a mere afterthought. The combination of not being able to rely on him staying healthy and his unspectacular running ability made him a prime candidate to be cut, especially in favor of undrafted free agent Josh Adams. And despite actually being able to stay healthy during the preseason, his lackluster performances in the games didn’t help sway the detractors. But when it came time to finally cut the roster down to 53, Smallwood made it as one of the 4 running backs. And honestly, it’s a good thing that he did.
With Ajayi and Sproles out in Week 3 against the Colts, Smallwood ran the ball 10 times for 56 yards and a touchdown and caught the ball 3 times for 35 yards. Fan favorite Corey Clement got the majority of carries, but it was Smallwood who had the better performance. On one run late in the 3rd quarter he displayed impressive strength and power as he was able to push the pile forward for an extra 5 years. He also came down with a big catch for 34 yards late in the 2nd quarter.
My game ball goes to… WENDELL SMALLWOOD!!! 😳😳😳
— Charles “Chux” Maranan (@ChuxMaranan) September 23, 2018
In Week 4 against the Titans, Ajayi returned but Clement was out this time with Sproles yet to return. In their absence, Smallwood ran the ball 5 times for 39 yards and caught the ball 3 times for 15 yards. He continued to show the same strength and versatility from the week before. His last carry of the game that came in OT was one of the best runs I’ve ever seen from him. He displayed very good agility to avoid one linebacker who immediately got penetration and then showed the strength and speed to fight off and pull away from another.
Some Eagles fans might not want to admit it, but Smallwood has been the Eagles’ 2nd best runner after Ajayi a quarter into the regular season, not Clement or Sproles. He’s finally showing why Duce Staley liked him so much, as he’s been able to run with solid/good strength, top end speed, agility, and vision. He’s also been a solid weapon out of the backfield in the receiving game, running good routes and looking much more comfortable catching the football.
He does still have his flaws; he’s still not an elusive runner, he doesn’t have much explosion, and his pass protection is still pretty bad. But it’s getting to the point where we know what he is, which is a very solid complimentary back in a rotation. And honestly that’s not a bad thing at all, especially considering he was only a 5th round draft pick. Having a late round player be able to contribute like he has been is a victory for the Eagles front office.
It will be interesting to see how the rotation with him, Sproles, and Clement will be once they’re all healthy. We all know that Ajayi is the lead back, and rightfully so. But going forward Smallwood definitely deserves to play a role in this offense and get some touches here and there. That’s something I really didn’t think I’d be saying.