Hello! Welcome back to the latest installment of the Rushing Report. We’re headed into week eight and as always, I’m coming in hot with some great running back data. Week seven was a weird one for running backs. Marlon Mack came back with an insane two TD performance, Nick Chubb sounded the horn for his very own hype train, and Dion Lewis had owners in a frenzy after posting season-high efficiency numbers against the Chargers.
Despite the craziness, I still managed to keep my eye on one specific backfield. One that I’ve wanted to profile for a few weeks now. The Philadelphia Eagles.
The Eagles have had an interesting backfield situation since they traded for Jay Ajayi last season. After he went down in week five with an ACL tear, owners were confused about who would be the guy to own going forward. Three weeks later and we still don’t know. Understandably, I’ve been eager to sort out the mess that is this Eagles backfield. So, let’s dive in on some week seven recap, data, and usage and find out what’s going on in Philly.
Fantasy Football Rushing Report
2018 kicked off with many speculating that Jay Ajayi would be the go-to guy in Philly. After the Eagles dumped off LeGarrette Blount, that seemed like the most reasonable assumption. Week one told us differently though. Darren Sproles out snapped Jay Ajayi by a narrow margin against the Falcons. However, Ajayi won the touches and production battle. This should have been a big red flag for owners. It was later announced that Sproles suffered a hamstring injury and was day-to-day. Ajayi owners rejoice! Several weeks of Sproles being inactive left the workload to Ajayi with Corey Clement and Wendell Smallwood fighting for leftovers.
Things got a bit dicey following week five though. The Eagles announced Ajayi had suffered a torn ACL and would miss the remainder of the season. Owners knew that the Eagles had more than capable backups in Clement and Smallwood. But the question was, which guy would see the biggest uptick in market share of the Eagles offense? In the past two games, owners still have no answer to that question. Clement and Smallwood’s usage has been weird, to say the least. With Sproles set to potentially return in the coming weeks, this backfield can get a lot weirder. So, hows are things going to shake out for fantasy owners? Week seven gave us some good info to digest in search of an answer.
Week Seven Recap
The Carolina Panthers strolled into Philly to play the Eagles in week seven. Carolina came into the game ranked 15th in both passing and rushing defense allowed to opponents. A tough matchup on paper for the Eagles. Wendell Smallwood made his second straight start after Carolina failed to get anything going on their opening drive. Despite the offensive struggle for the Panthers to start the game, the defense held the Eagles rushing attack in check from the jump.
Clement saw action a few minutes into the first quarter. From there, it was almost a total split in workload between him and Smallwood. Clement saw 25 snaps (37.3%) to Smallwoods 35 snaps (52.2%). Neither back made any use of their opportunity. Cam Newton and the offense had trouble pushing the ball down the field and were forced to punt nearly the entire first half. This put the Eagles deep in their own territory early. forcing them to throw to make up ground. Both Clement and Smallwood struggled to find room to run, feeding more fuel to the air attack.
Due to the stout defense of the Panthers, the Eagles only rushed the ball 24 times. The only big play either guy made was a 51-yard dump off pass to Smallwood that was inevitably called back for holding. Wentz looked to push the ball down the field to Zach Ertz and Alshon Jeffery which hindered both backs opportunities in the passing game. The game script made both guys nonexistent. So much so that Josh Adams saw eight attempts throughout the game and even had an RZ carry.
Week seven showed us what both of these backs aren’t. However, owners want to know what they ARE. Perhaps the data can help us out in finding some more answers.
What The Data Tells Us
After the news of Jay Ajayi going down for the season, owners hopped on the Clement hype train. His spectacular postseason play during the Eagles Super Bowl run still lingered in the air and owners thought he would be the guy. In week seven we saw him once again serve as the secondary back to Smallwood. Despite not getting the start and being out snapped by Smallwood, Clement did see nearly identical usage to his counterpart. Clement had eight attempts for just six yards on the ground. Even uglier, he had two receptions for just 16 yards against the Panthers.
The absence of Ajayi in the backfield has changed very little for Clement. Since Ajayi’s exit after week five, Clement has seen 19 attempts for just 49 yards and one rushing TD in two games. He’s also only had five targets and five receptions for 42 yards in the passing game. Much of this is obviously due to splitting the load with Smallwood. However, with his talent, owners have expected him to break from that timeshare and he hasnt. The heat map above shows Clements efficiency as a runner through seven games this season. As you can see, outside of some success at running to the right side of the offensive line, he’s below average in terms of YPC everywhere else.
One area that he slightly edges out Smallwood is in passing game production. Clement has 13 receptions for 116 yards on the season. 52 of which are air yards. Clement boasts a 5.20 aDOT score which is extremely high for a running back in the NFL. That means he’s being targeted as an actual receiver in spread formations and not just a dump off option. A plus sign for his owners going forward.
Smallwood has been a shadow in this Eagles backfield since he’s been here. But circumstances have drastically changed and he now finds himself entrenched in a split workload with Clement. He continues to start games over Clement but still has yet to break away from him in terms of both production and snap %. Smallwood saw nine attempts for 32 yards and saw two receptions for 5 yards in week seven.
Philly continues to put faith in Smallwood despite all the hype that was surrounded by Clement coming into the season. Kudos to owners who picked him up on faith. Bad news, Smallwood hasn’t made the best of his starting role since the Ajayi injury. Since taking over the role in week five, Smallwood has just 27 attempts for 82 yards and three receptions for 5 yards through the air. The heat map above shows his efficiency as a runner so far this season. The chart shows that he fairs well between the tackles and along the edge of the line. Despite being the more efficient back, the Eagles have yet to give him extended work.
Smallwood is being used in the passing game at almost an identical workload to Clement. Smallwood has 13 receptions on 19 targets for 101 receiving yards and one TD through the air. 62 of those yards are air yards. Unlike Clement, Smallwood has an aDOT score of 3.60, which isn’t bad. He is just taking more routes out of the backfield and not thrown out wide like Clement. He’s still being used as a receiving back, which is good for his owners.
As seen against the Panthers, The Eagles offense goes through Wentz’s arm. Through seven weeks, the Eagles rank 15th in passing offense averaging 260 yards per game. However, they rank eighth in the league in passing attempts averaging 39 per game. The success through the air has downgraded the run game as the Eagles rank 21st in rushing offense averaging just 102.9 yards per game on the ground.
Jay Ajayi was the true workhorse back in this backfield. In the past two games, the Eagles have shown us that they don’t plan on manufacturing one of those out of Clement and Smallwood in the future. Whatever hopes that owners had of Clement being the go-to guy is long gone. Clement has upside as being able to fit into the Eagles passing scheme which is a huge plus. Smallwood has the benefit of starting at the moment and has better efficiency numbers as a runner. But, we can see just how close both backs are in fantasy production in the chart above. With that being said, Clement and Smallwood are both matchup-based FLEX options barring an unforeseen injury to either back.
One final note for concerned owners, Darren Sproles has been nearing a return and is expected back in the coming weeks. This will throw yet another wrench into the backfield rotation of the Eagles. Owners would be wise to monitor this situation going forward. Sproles had usage in week one before the injury, something the Eagles may look to get back to when he returns.