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August 25, 2017

Could UDFA Corey Clement steal roster spot from FBS’ all-time leading rusher?

Doug Pederson and Howie Roseman are going to have some difficult decisions to make in the coming weeks. It’s almost time to start trimming the rosters, and as the Eagles head coach – don’t forget, he has some experience being on the other side of those decisions – correctly pointed out after beating the Dolphins, the next week is going to be critical for the guys battling it out on the fringes of the roster.

“I can remember myself being in that situation even as a third- or fourth-string quarterback, just fighting and clawing for everything,” Pederson said. “The exciting thing is these guys are making plays when they're in the game. This next week is going to be important for all those guys that are vying for those positions, and that makes it hard on us for those final roster spots.”

Of course, there are other ways a player can increase his odds of earning one of those 53 spots. A guy could get injured, taking the decision out of the coach’s hands. Someone could make a couple big plays on special teams – [cough] Kenjon Barner [cough] – that help keep him on the roster. 

But the time to showcase such skills are drawing to an end. And the toughest decision facing Pederson and Co. may be at running back.

Fourth-round pick Donnel Pumphrey had a few things going for him heading into the preseason, but perhaps none more impactful than the team’s decision to rest veteran Darren Sproles. 

Not only did that mean more touches for the rookie – just like the absence of Wendell Smallwood in the first two preseason games – but it also gave him a chance to show something on special teams, as he became the primary punt returner in Sproles’ absence.

Despite drawing comparisons to Sproles due to their similar sizes and receiving åbilities, Pumphrey hasn’t looked anything like his veteran counterpart this preseason. And that’s been most apparent on special teams. 

In Thursday’s 38-31 win over the Dolphins, Pumphrey once again muffed a punt – just like in the first preseason game, he fell on the ball to avoid a turnover – and so far this preseason, he’s returned seven punts (not counting his one fair catch) for an average of 2.1 yards.

But Pumphrey, the guy with the most career rushing yards in FBS history, was supposed to make this team as a running back, not as a punt returner. So why are we even worried about that, especially when Sproles is going to resume that role once the games actually matter?

Because, through the first three preseason games, he hasn’t done anything on the ground to separate himself from the other running backs. Following his most productive game of the preseason in which he ran 12 times for 37 yards (3.1 per carry), Pumphrey’s up to 19 carries for 39 yards (2.1 per carry). So, yeah, not great. 

"I want them to make it hard on us as a coaching staff and a personnel department, and all we can ask is to make it tough on us. But at the end of the day, we've got to select the 53 that is going to travel to Washington.”

Meanwhile, Smallwood carried the ball four times for 28 yards in his first preseason action. And even LeGarrette Blount, who had 17 yards on nine carries coming in, was able to break off a 15-yarder on one of his four carries – we’ll forget the part where his other three carries totaled four yards. Both of those guys are locks to make the roster, however, so neither really pose a threat to his potential roster spot. 

But Glassboro native Corey Clement, an undrafted free agent out of Wisconsin, does.

To this point, he’s been the Birds’ most productive running back. His 24 carries, 89 yards and two touchdowns are all team highs through the first three games. He also has the longest run from scrimmage this year (24 yards) and is averaging 3.7 yards per carry, more than any other Eagles back except Smallwood, who has only carried the ball four times.

So has he already shown enough to wrestle a spot away from Pumphrey? Not yet, says Clement.

“This is going to be a crucial seven days,” Clement said after carrying the ball nine times for 42 yards and a touchdown against the Dolphins. “This is the last showcase we have to prove to the staff that I should be a part of this 53-man roster. But I can’t think about that at all. If I am my best self that day, I go back in the mirror as I go to sleep just knowing I gave it my all. I shouldn’t have anything to worry about if I gave it my all each day.”

Clement also caught two more passes out of the backfield, bringing him up to six for 48 yards through three games. But that’s nothing compared to Pumphrey, who tied for a team-high five catches for 37 yards in the game and leads all Eagles with 12 receptions so far this preseason for 69 yards. 

To break it down into the most basic terms: Clement is averaging 4.57 yards every time he touches the ball (not to mention his two touchdown runs), while Pumphrey is more than a yard behind at 3.48 yards per touch (not two mention the two muffed punts make him a potential liability on special teams).

That last part could be the most important.

At the top, we talked about there being other ways to make the team, specifically how that relates to Pumphrey’s struggles as a punt returner. But there's more to that story, because now the Glassboro High grad is also making appearances on special teams, trying to advantage of every opportunity to make this team.

“It’s just the fact that I’m greedy; I want to keep going," Clement said. "I wanted to keep playing and as the game went on I got a chance to get more of a taste of the special teams. So as that went on, I wanted to show Coach [Dave] Fipp and [RB] Coach Duce [Staley] that I could play all four quarters. 

"When it comes down to it you got to be somewhat selfish because you have to show you’re a hungry guy who wants your team to win every single day.”

And with Clement getting a chance to return some kicks against the Dolphins (two for 32 yards), what once looked like an advantage for Pumphrey (an opportunity to make a splash on special teams) is suddenly starting to look like an advantage for his competition. Sure, Clement didn’t turn any heads on those returns, but he didn’t put the ball on the turf either. 

Could that – combined with the fact that he has Pumphrey beat in nearly every statistical category to this point – be enough for this UDFA to snag a roster spot from one of the most prolific running backs in college football history? 

“They're making it tough,” Pederson said when asked about the task of potentially deciding between one or the other. “I challenged the young guys tonight after the game that this next week is going to be important. I want them to make it hard on us as a coaching staff and a personnel department, and all we can ask is to make it tough on us. But at the end of the day, we've got to select the 53 that is going to travel to Washington.”

They’ll get one more chance to make their cases next week against the Jets.

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