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Philadelphia Eagles

Too early for Eagles to give up on Donnel Pumphrey

Philadelphia Eagles' Donnel Pumphrey during an NFL football rookie minicamp at the team's training facility in Philadelphia, Friday, May 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Philadelphia Eagles rookie running back Donnel Pumphrey has looked so ordinary, so meager, so underwhelming, and so extraordinarily out of place at the professional level that it’s fair to wonder why the team drafted him in the first place.

Let alone trading up in the fourth round to land him.

Pumphrey, the 170-pound featherweight, has looked like a kindergartner in a sea of world-class athletes. He’s averaged just around two yards per carry in the preseason, and his fumble problems and inability to make extra yards only contradict the scouting report once given by team personnel VP Joe Douglas, who once called the former San Diego State star a “little dog who thinks he’s a big dog.”

Although it appears as if the Eagles have every reason to cut ties with Pumphrey on Saturday and go forward instead with rookie free agent Corey Clement for the fourth running back spot, coach Doug Pederson left the door open for the team to retain both.

Five running backs seems steep, given that most teams only have three active on game day and Pederson’s offense leans heavily on the pass, but keeping Pumphrey would be the right move, no matter how unfit for the NFL he presently looks.

Pumphrey might be out of his league right now, but there’s a reason he left San Diego State as the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher. His body type might scream “third-down back,” but the kid defied odds for years in the Mountain West Conference, where players aren’t overly smaller or slower than their power conference brethren.

The Eagles have said frequently that they’re evolving into a draft-and-develop team after years of missteps in free agency, and most of their actions in the past year have validated those claims.

They hired Douglas, a highly respected scout who cut his teeth in the Ravens front office, to lead their personnel department. They filled most holes in free agency this offseason by issuing only one-year, bargain-basement deals. They’ve traded veterans for draft picks and made trades for players (Ronald Darby, Tim Jernigan) who are still under rookie contracts and can be a part of the team’s nucleus going forward. They’ve passed on low-hanging fruit, not making plays for Jeremy Maclin, Richard Sherman or, most recently, Joe Haden despite needs at receiver and cornerback.

If you’re taking the draft-and-develop approach, it’s important to see the “development” part through. Most general managers say every draft pick is a projection and every prospect should be judged three years down the road. So what sense would it make to dump Pumphrey without allowing him at least one season of development?

Cutting Pumphrey and hoping he clears waivers for practice squad eligibility is too risky. The Cowboys reportedly were interested in drafting Pumphrey to fill their pass-catching tailback void, which explains why the Eagles traded up in the fourth round to 132nd overall — one ahead of Dallas, at 133rd — to get him.

Pumphrey was checked out for a head injury Thursday in the preseason finale against the Jets, but he passed his exams, so injured reserve doesn’t seem feasible.

It’s been suggested that Pumphrey’s future is more at slot receiver than running back, and it’s fair to question the team’s philosophy on that decision. If they wanted a slot receiver, why not just take … a receiver?

It’s also been surmised that the Eagles see Pumphrey as the successor to Darren Sproles, who has said 2017 will be his final year. Sproles is another dwarfish, pass-catching halfback, but he’s much more compact and muscular than Pumphrey. After three preseason games, the Eagles had used Pumphrey similarly to the way they use Sproles, as noted by this stat:

Meanwhile, Clement has become the latest rookie free agent to generate buzz around Philly by performing well against second- and third-stringers. There’s one every season.

But it seems like Clement, a South Jersey kid who played at Wisconsin, is getting more attention for outperforming Pumphrey than for actually being good enough to merit a spot on the 53-man roster.

Going into Thursday night’s game, Clement was averaging 3.7 yards per carry, which ranked 46th among running backs with at least 10 preseason carries. He added 16 more yards on four carries against the Jets, slightly raising his average to 3.75.

You can make a good argument that neither Pumphrey nor Clement deserve to make the 53-man roster, but the Eagles committed to Pumphrey when they moved up in the fourth round to get him. They shouldn’t give up on him yet.

— Geoff Mosher, a longtime Philadelphia sports reporter, is also a host on @975TheFanatic in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffMosherNFL.

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