The Philadelphia Eagles did a good job in the 2017 NFL Draft of balancing their selections between taking the best player available and addressing immediate needs. Luckily for them, their needs aligned well with the positions of strength throughout the draft. They were able to add talent at edge rusher, cornerback, wide receiver, running back and defensive line. Despite addressing the running back position with the addition of former San Diego State star Donnel Pumphrey, many fans and analysts were left questioning the Eagles decision not to add another player from a seemingly deep running back class.
Standing at 5’8” tall and weighing just 176 pounds, Pumphrey does not appear to have the physical attributes to be an every down back at the next level. With running back Ryan Mathews coming off of a serious neck injury and likely to be cut and Darren Sproles entering his last season playing in the NFL, the Eagles would have surely benefited from adding a player that can take a good number of carries and make an impact in between the tackles. Pumphrey, whom the Eagles traded up to select in the 4th round, may not be that player. In addition, the Eagles chose not to address the position later in the draft, choosing instead to look to the undrafted pool of players to fill that need. So, entering a season with nothing more than marginal talent at the position, why should Eagles fans be excited about Pumphrey?
There is Only One Donnel Pumphrey
College production can often be misleading when evaluating players making the jump up to the next level, but there are things that can be gleaned from it. While at San Diego State, Pumphrey set the all-time NCAA career rushing record with 6,405 yards. Despite some debate about the technicality which won him the actual record, 6,405 rushing yards is nothing to shake a stick at, especially for a 5’8’’, 176-pound player. Add that onto 100 career receptions for 1,041 yards receiving and his production becomes even more impressive. A running back of his stature, even in a non-power five conference like the Mountain West, is still really small. When he enters the NFL, it won’t be the first time he has been completely outmatched from a size standpoint. There is clearly something special about Pumphrey that separates him from other similar size running backs that came before him. The following clips are just a few examples of his traits and abilities as a runner and a receiver. Watch almost any of his games, though, and it will be littered with many more examples of what I’ve highlighted below.
One of the more impressive and important traits that Pumphrey displays is his vision. San Diego State ran a variety of gap running concepts but also mixed in some zone concepts as well. Pumphrey has an excellent ability to read the defense, anticipate the movement of second-level defenders, and influence them to go where he needs them to before breaking in another direction.
The first example is from the 2016 Las Vegas Bowl versus Houston on the play where Pumphrey breaks the all-time rushing record. The San Diego State Aztecs run a power toss sweep concept to the right side. Watch as Pumphrey (#19) reads Houston cornerback Howard Wilson (#6) to the wide side of the field coming down to seal the edge and forces him back inside. Pumphrey stops his feet, looking like he is going for the cutback, which draws Wilson back inside slightly and allows Aztec fullback Nick Bawden (#15) just enough time to get outside and get the seal block on Wilson. Pumphrey then accelerates back outside and wins the edge for a 15-yard gain and the all-time rushing record. Without that vision and foresight to influence Wilson inside, Bawden wouldn’t have made his block and Pumphrey wouldn’t have been able to get to the edge.
This next play, against the California Golden Bears, is another power toss concept to the right side. Here, Pumphrey quickly sells the cutback, then races to the perimeter before ultimately cutting it back inside again. Watch as he uses the flow of the Golden Bear defenders against them and sets up the block of his fullback, Dakota Turner (#41), allowing Pumphrey to cut back inside for a big gain.
The next play is a zone lead concept that the Aztecs ran against Houston in the Las Vegas Bowl. Pumphrey follows Bawden on the zone play, sees a cutback lane and presses the lane just long enough to get linebacker Steven Taylor (#41) to commit to it. He then changes direction and accelerates outside, breaking a tackle attempt by Wilson and ripping off a long run.
On this final play versus the Fresno State Bulldogs, the Aztecs run a power play to the left side. Pumphrey shows excellent patience waiting for his blocks to set up and then very good acceleration through the hole. As Pumphrey receives the ball, notice the slight hesitation which allows Bawden to kick out the Fresno State defensive end and guard Antonio Rosales (#67) to get onto the second level and take out Bulldog defensive back DeShawn Potts (#2). Pumphrey must read both of these blocks and evaluate the defender’s leverage. In this case, both Bawden and Rosales get inside leverage on both defenders so Pumphrey is able to accelerate straight ahead. He is tripped up on the second level but shows good competitive toughness and awareness to dive for the first down.
At his size, most assume that a stiff wind could take Pumphrey to the ground but that is simply not the case. There is a popular video floating around of Pumphrey completely running over the 6’4, 225-pound Obi Melifonwu at the 2017 Senior Bowl, but that was not the only time Pumphrey proved he could play with the big boys.
This next clip is another power play run versus Fresno State, this time down in the red zone. Pumphrey again shows great patience and vision reading his blocks and accelerating through the hole but then sees the two Bulldog safeties lining him up. Watch as he accelerates into contact and drives right through both of them, churning his legs for another three yards after contact. Not even every NFL running back accelerates into contact, and that is the definition of toughness in a runner.
Here is Pumphrey again versus Fresno State, churning through contact and breaking several tackles for a significant gain.
Pumphrey’s tape is littered with several of these plays displaying his toughness and ability to run inside despite his small stature.
In my opinion, Pumphrey has some of the quickest, most graceful feet of any Eagles draft pick since DeSean Jackson. This is the primary reason that he can be so dangerous as a route runner but he can also use them so effectively in the run game.
The next video shows two plays, both versus Fresno State, where the Bulldogs win the battle at the line of scrimmage and break through into the backfield. Pumphrey’s quick feet and ability to make defenders miss in such tight quarters is a sight to behold.
On this next play versus Cal, the Aztecs run a zone stretch concept at the goal line. Pumphrey again shows great vision, seeing the cutback lane immediately and cutting back. But then he sees Golden Bear linebacker Cameron Saffle (#51) shuffling too far inside on his cutback responsibility and displays an amazingly quick jump cut and acceleration back outside to the corner of the endzone.
As primarily a space player at the next level, that foot quickness will be incredibly dangerous and something every defender must be aware of in the open field.
Pumphrey is equally, if not more, dangerous in the passing game, where he will most likely make his biggest impact at the next level. The next few plays are good examples of routes he could very well be asked to run in Doug Pederson’s offense.
The first play comes late in the game against Mountain West rival, the Wyoming Cowboys. Pumphrey runs an option route out of the backfield and does a great job reading the linebacker and breaking on his route. As he leaves the backfield, Wyoming linebacker Logan Wilson (#30) takes an outside leverage to funnel Pumphrey inside where fellow linebacker Lucas Wacha (#45) awaits. The running back reads Wilson’s leverage and breaks inside creating instant separation but then makes a very subtle move back to the ball which also leaves Wacha in the dust for a 26-yard gain.
In the next play, Pumphrey splits out in the slot on the far hash and runs a quick slant versus Houston safety Garrett Davis (#1) ,who was aligned head up on the running back. At the snap, Pumphrey hard plants outside, bringing Davis with him, then snaps back to gain inside leverage and a step on the safety. Pumphrey secures the ball and does a good job spinning outside while wrapped up to avoid the big hit coming from the other Houston safety.
The final play highlights Pumphrey’s above average ball skills that he brings to the next level. Later in the bowl game versus Houston, the Aztecs fake a zone stretch play and Pumphrey sneaks out and runs a wheel route down the near sideline. Quarterback Christian Chapman (#10) puts the ball in the perfect place where only the running back can get it and Pumphrey makes a great one-handed back shoulder grab along the sideline with Davis draped all over him. Watch the replay as Pumphrey does an excellent job fighting off contact from Davis, turning his body to shield Davis from the ball ,and pulling it in with one hand and getting his foot down inside the white line.
Many worry about Pumphrey’s ability to make the jump because of his size, and rightfully so. The amount of runners finding success in the NFL, at his size, is small. He most likely won’t be asked to be a three down running back, though, so his size should be less concerning. The real question should be; can he adequately fill the third-down running back and receiver role? Can he adequately match up with linebackers and safeties in space out of the backfield or the slot and handle five to seven carries per game? Judging from the plays above, the answer, at least for me, is a resounding yes.
Winning in His Role
Although I think he has the potential to do more, Pumphrey’s primary role will be that of a classic change of pace back in the NFL. He will mainly operate as a third down back, get involved in the passing game from the backfield or empty the formation and motion out to the slot creating mismatches with linebackers or safeties. Pumphrey will also get involved in the ground game on delay draws or other runs in primary passing situations.
This role is no different than the role of any other passing down back across the league. The one difference between Pumphrey and those other backs, however, is that Pumphrey has a real chance to be elite working in that role. Playing as an every down back at his size, even in a non-power five conference, is really impressive. Pumphrey didn’t just play as an every down back, though, he set the all-time NCAA rushing record and is 10th all time in rush attempts in NCAA history. Couple that with the vision, foot quickness, acceleration, toughness and route running that he showed on a weekly basis while at San Diego State and you see why Pumphrey has a chance to be elite in this role at the next level. I am not saying that Pumphrey will be an elite NFL player, only that he can be elite in the role that he plays. Darren Sproles and Danny Woodhead are not elite NFL players but they are elite at what they do. Obviously nothing is guaranteed in the NFL, Pumphrey may not end up even being serviceable within his role for any number of reasons. If there is one player who has a chance to succeed, though, it’s Donnel Pumphrey.
The Importance of that Role
The 2017 NFL draft is now complete and the Philadelphia Eagles still have question marks at the running back position. It would have been nice if they had been able to add another running back to their stable who can take a large workload but that was not the way their board and the draft fell. Although Pumphrey may not be able to fulfill this role, the Eagles clearly saw something special in him. That is why they not only selected him over several of those types of runners but also traded up in the fourth round and in front of their division rival Dallas Cowboys to select him. The Eagles selected him over running backs such as Jamaal Williams, Wayne Gallman and Marlon Mack. All three of these backs may provide more to their team overall than Pumphrey can provide to Philadelphia. They can take a large chunk of carries in any game and still catch passes out of the backfield. While the roles of these running backs may be more expansive than Pumphrey’s, however, they will more than likely fail to be elite in those roles. If they were elite in these every down roles, they would’ve been selected much higher than the fourth round.
The Eagles emphasized getting a potentially elite player in a small role, which just so happens to be quite an important role in the Eagles’ offense, over getting an average-to-slightly above average player in a larger role. They also then signed undrafted free agent Corey Clement, who many thought of as a 6-7th round pick, to complement Wendell Smallwood and eat up some of the early down work. Clement does not present the ability to thrive on passing downs at the next level, but with Pumphrey in the fold, he doesn’t need to. Williams, Gallman and Mack, to a lesser extent, are all known for their run and pass game versatility. If Philadelphia were to have spent another pick on one of these players or others similar to them, they would essentially only be used in the running game as the role in the passing game was already filled by Pumphrey. If you are strictly using them in the running game, are those players really that much better than Corey Clement? I’d argue not and it’s also not crazy to think that some may actually prefer Clement as an inside runner over those three.
In today’s NFL, only the elite running backs are worthy of heavy investment. Outside of the elite tier, versatile running backs can also provide value to teams. When a team already has another player who is perfectly suited for that passing game role, however, the value of their versatility is drastically diminished. Football is a game of mismatches and in a league with immense parity, three-to-four plays can change an entire game and one game can change an entire season. In this type of environment, I would take an elite player in a small role over an average player in a large one any day of the week and there is a very good chance that is exactly what the Philadelphia Eagles got in Donnel Pumphrey.