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July 06, 2023

Eagles 2023 training camp preview: Running back

The Eagles have a lot of depth at running back entering 2023. What does each RB bring to the team?

Eagles NFL
6.1.23_EaglesD'Andre-Swift_ColleenClaggett-0153.jpg Colleen Claggett/For PhillyVoice

Eagles running back D'Andre Swift during a drill back at OTAs.

Over the next three or so weeks (basically whenever there isn't other news to cover), we'll take a look at every player on the Philadelphia Eagles' roster, and how they fit with the team heading into training camp. Today we'll look at the running backs.

Previous training camp previews


Running back depth charts are usually shown in terms of RB1, RB2, RB3, etc., but I don't think that's how we should be viewing this group. The Eagles have two different kinds of backs on their rosters — guys who will play on run downs only, and guys who will also have roles on obvious passing downs and in the two-minute offense:

 Running back
Early down guys Rashaad Penny Boston Scott Trey Sermon Kennedy Brooks 
Passing down capability D'Andre Swift Kenny Gainwell   

In 2022, the running back rotation was fairly straightforward. Miles Sanders was the early down back, Boston Scott was his direct backup in that role, and Kenny Gainwell was the third down / two minute guy, with Trey Sermon typically inactive on gameday.

That dynamic will look a little different in 2023, as the Eagles added Penny, who is probably an early down guy only, and Swift, who can do a little of everything. It will be interesting to see how much Swift plays in Gainwell's third down role, and how many opportunities Gainwell gets on early downs. A look at each guy:

D'Andre Swift

We published a full breakdown of Swift's game in May, with video of all his touches in 2022. The Cliff's Notes version:

• Swift had explosive plays all day in each of the Lions' first two games in 2022 against the Eagles and Commanders. He was decisively hitting holes, making defenders miss at the second level, and galloping up the field. In Week 3, he played through an ankle injury, re-aggravated it, and he ended up missing the next four weeks (three games, plus a bye week) as a result. In the five games after his return, he rushed 23 times for 61 yards (2.7 YPC), and he caught 16 passes on 23 targets for 109 yards (4.7 yards per target). He just didn't have the same explosiveness, as you can see in the video in the article we linked to above. As the season progressed, you could see Swift regain his explosiveness, particularly in the Lions' last four games.

Vision: Swift does of nice job of recognizing where to run, and then hitting that hole. He also shows some creativity in setting up second- and third-level defenders for juke moves when he gets into the open field. I almost expected that he would be a player who would unnecessarily bounce runs to the outside instead of at least getting what was blocked up for him, but I didn't see that. He generally ran through the correct crease without hesitation.

Tackle breaking: As noted above, Swift can make defenders miss, however, he doesn't break a lot of tackles. If he runs square into a defender, he will typically lose those battles, either getting knocked backwards or going straight to ground. He is not what you would call an "always falls forward" type of back.

Receiving: Swift is thought of as a good receiver because he averaged over 50 catches per season over his first three years in the NFL. His 156 receptions are fifth in the NFL among running backs during that span. However, his yards per target average of 5.8 is just OK. Among 23 running backs with at least 100 catches over the last three seasons, his 5.8 yards per target ranked 12th.

Still, he is a massive upgrade in the passing game over Miles Sanders, who had a good rookie season as a pass catcher and then completely fizzled out in that department thereafter.

Ball security: Six fumbles on 520 career touches. As a point of comparison, Sanders had nine career fumbles on 863 career touches. That's a fumble every 87 touches for Swift, and every 96 touches for Sanders. It's worth noting that Swift only had one fumble in 2022.

Pass protection: I didn't actively seek out examples of Swift in pass protection when cutting up his rushes and targets, but I did happen to see a couple of moments that weren't great. PFF had him ranked fourth in pass protection in 2022, which came as a big surprise. We'll get a better look at him in pass pro in training camp. 

Overall: If Swift can be anything close to the runner that he was early in the 2022 season before his ankle flared up, he has the potential to be a very exciting player in the Eagles' offense, both as a home run hitter as a runner and as a player who adds a new dimension to the Eagles' offense in the screen game.

Rashaad Penny

We published a full breakdown of Penny's game in June, again with videos and stuff. Let's go CliffsNotes version again:

Penny's last 10 starts, and he rushed for 149 times for 1017 yards (6.8 YPC), and 8 TDs. Within that grouping of games, it can be said with no hyperbole that he was a star player.

Penny's running style is a great fit for the Eagles' offense. He's a power back at 220 pounds, who runs with excellent energy. He has good vision, and his short, choppy steps allow him to follow his blocks as they develop down the field, while also giving him surprisingly good lateral elusiveness. Those quick, choppy steps allow him to run under control, making him a very effective bad weather back. File that away for December and January, should Penny still be up and running by then.

As the videos within his breakdown show, he has uncommon burst and acceleration for a 220-pound back. He combines that acceleration with patience/hesitation, while running in between the tackles, and once he once he gets into the open field he can run away from some defensive backs, much like, saaayyy, Derrick Henry, to give another example of a big back with good long speed.

Penny isn't likely to be much of a factor in the passing game, as he has just 27 career catches, and has never had 10 or more catches in any one season. He seems to catch the ball well enough on short throws, and could perhaps be used on some rare screens or misdirection plays, but he won't be lining up in the slot like Brian Westbrook.

He signed with the Eagles for a mere $1.35 million on a one-year deal. Why? Well, he has missed 40 games in five seasons: 

• 2018: Missed two games with a knee injury.

• 2019: Missed three games early in the season with a hamstring injury.

• 2019: Torn ACL. Missed the final three games of the season.

• 2020: Missed the first 13 games of the regular season while recovering from his 2019 torn ACL. He returned for the final three regular season games, but missed the Seahawks' wild card round matchup against the Rams.

• 2021: Injured his calf in the Seahawks' win over the Colts Week 1. He missed the next five games.

• 2022: Broke his tibia Week 5 against the Saints, missed the rest of the season.

Every one of Penny's injuries listed above are leg injuries. They add up. I think we need to see in training camp that Penny still has his explosiveness, and that, you know, he doesn't get hurt.

With that said, if he can be the player that he was over his last 10 games, Penny can be an absolute beast in the Eagles' offense playing (a) behind the best offensive line in the NFL, (b) alongside a quarterback who demands respect as a runner and can occupy a defender on RPOs, and (c) in an offense with A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith, and Dallas Goedert, who can all make defenses pay if they choose to pack the box.

Kenny Gainwell

In 2022, Gainwell rushed 53 times for 240 yards (4.5 YPC) and 4 TDs, while also chipping in 23 receptions for 169 yards as the Eagles' passing down back. Gainwell struggled to adjust to the NFL at times over his first 1.5 or so years in the league, but the Eagles continued to play him in his third-down role anyway, and their bet on him eventually paid off, as Gainwell finished the season strongly.

He played more snaps than Sanders both in the NFC Championship Game against the 49ers and against the Chiefs in the Super Bowl. Against the Giants in the divisional round, he had 12 carries for 112 yards and a TD, plus a catch for nine yards on only 16 snaps.

I can't imagine Gainwell was super thrilled with the addition of Swift during the draft, but the Eagles still pretty obviously like him, and his arrow is pointing up.

Boston Scott

Scott has now been with the Eagles since 2018, often filling in for Sanders whenever he was unavailable, usually against the Giants. In 2022, Scott carried 54 times for 217 yards (4.0 YPC) and 3 TDs, and didn't do much as a receiver (five catches for 15 yards). The Doug Pederson regime tried to give Scott some looks in the passing game, but Nick Sirianni's staff has not used him that way.

Trey Sermon

The Niners used a third-round pick on Sermon in the 2021 draft, but he only lasted one year there, as he was waived following 2022 training camp. The Eagles subsequently claimed Sermon, and while he lasted on their 53-man roster for the entirety of the season, he was usually a gameday inactive, as noted above. 

We published a breakdown of Sermon's game soon after he joined the team last year. During that exercise, we concluded that while Sermon has good size at 6'0, 215, his game more closely mirrors Sanders', than, say, Jordan Howard's. The common perception on why the Niners gave up on him was that he was not developing into the type of north-south runner that they wanted him to be.

With the Eagles in 2022, Sermon only appeared in two games, carrying twice for 19 yards. The Eagles are highly unlikely to keep five running backs, so Sermon will be competing with Scott for the RB4 job. It's maybe worth noting that with the new fair catch kickoff rules, Scott's versatility as the team's No. 1 kick returner isn't as important as it was a year ago. 

Kennedy Brooks

Brooks was a 2022 undrafted free agent signing out of Oklahoma, who rushed 22 times for 75 yards (3.4 YPC) for the Eagles in the preseason. Brooks doesn't have great speed or any obviously elite traits, but he is big back who averaged 7.0 yards per carry in college. He is a longshot to make the 53-man roster.

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