If you were wondering what the hell Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly was doing when he traded away star running back LeSean McCoy earlier this offseason, you didn’t have to wait long for the Eagles’ running back situation to sort itself out. McCoy was traded to the Buffalo Bills for former Oregon star Kiko Alonso on Mar. 10 and by Mar. 12, the Eagles had thrown eights years and $53 million collectively at the position.
And while there’s no questioning that defending NFL rushing leader DeMarco Murray was the headliner of those Thursday acquisitions, it’d be prudent to not forget about the Eagles’ other signing if you happen to be a defensive coordinator in the NFC East. Because for as justifiably touted as Murray is, Ryan Mathews is also capable of hurting your football team.
Mathews was a first-round pick out of Fresno State in the 2010 NFL Draft. The San Diego Chargers spent the No. 12 overall selection on him, and in five season in San Diego, Mathews had a pair of 1,000-yard seasons while making one Pro Bowl and collecting 5,171 yards from scrimmage with 24 touchdowns in total.
Having only played in 16 games once during his career, injuries siphoned off his reliability and forced the Chargers to look elsewhere for a featured back, but in an offense that would prefer to dominate the line of scrimmage with a premier back and one of the most versatile playmakers in the NFL, Mathews doesn’t have to be a 16-week, 20-carry per game back. He can focus on being the type of player who keeps the offenses ahead of the sticks, which is what he’s excelled at in his five years in the league.
And if you’re thinking that the presence of Murray, Mathews and Darren Sproles presents a crowded backfield for Kelly and the Eagles, you can guess again. Because Kelly runs the spread, we’re quick to assume that means one back for one ball, but this is an offense that ideally would lead the league in rushing on a yearly basis.
Take Kelly’s final year at the University of Oregon in 2012, for instance. The Ducks had Marcus Mariota as a quarterback, Kenjon Barner (a 1,767-yard back), current Kansas City Chiefs slot receiver/running back De’Anthony Thomas and Byron Marshall (who started his career at Oregon as a running back before becoming more of a wide receiver). And with Barner working as the featured back, Thomas running out of the slot, the backfield and just about anywhere else they could think to hide him and Marshall working as the change of pace guy, Oregon ran for 315.2 yards per game.
At the time, Oregon was running over 81 plays per game, while Kelly’s Eagles were running at a more moderate pace of 70.4 plays per game in 2014, so there’s not likely to be the same amount of carries going around, but with Murray, Sproles and Mathews set to occupy similar roles as Barner, Thomas and Marshall, there’s still no reason they can’t peacefully coexist.
And that’s why Mathews’ presence is so interesting. Even in an NFL that seems more reliant on running back tandems and committees to share the load than ever, three years and $11 million for a backup running back seems excessive given the way we currently value the running back position.
However, don’t forget that this Eagles offense doesn’t have a Marcus Mariota, and for a team that’d ultimately prefer to run the football closer to 35 or 40 times per game than the 29.6 times per game they ran it in 2014, there’s going to be 10-12 touches a game there for Mathews every single week provided he’s healthy. And if you take that even further and consider that this is a team that does the majority of its work on the ground between the tackles and that they just invested a lot of money into Murray, Mathews’ ability to preserve Murray’s legs is as valuable as his ability to make those carries count.
Had Chip Kelly traded LeSean McCoy with designs on bringing Ryan Mathews over it be the primary back in this offense, he’d have been putting himself in a precarious situation. But as a complement to a workhorse like Murray an offense that has proven it takes care of its complimentary pieces, Ryan Mathews really fits.