No matter what happens in the future, Wendall Smallwood has already made history – he’s the first person born in Delaware who was ever drafted by the Eagles.
Now comes the hard part – staying with them.
Smallwood, born and mostly bred in Smyrna – he started his high school career at Red Lion Christian and finished it at Eastern Christian Academy in Elkton, Md. — is a running back who was selected in the fifth round by the Eagles on Saturday, the 153rd player drafted overall. He had a great senior season at West Virginia and his 1,519 rushing yards led the entire Big 12 Conference, one of the power conferences in college football. More impressive was Smallwood’s 6.4 yards per carry against that top-level competition.
He was dogged by off-the-field problems of which you are probably aware – in 2014, Smallwood was accused of using intimidation tactics against a witness in a murder investigation involving one of his friends, charges that were eventually dropped. Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said his security team investigated Smallwood thoroughly and the big shots in the front office interviewed him at length and everybody is satisfied that Smallwood is a good citizen as well as a good athlete.
Anyhow, Smallwood might have been drafted higher if he didn’t have those off-field problems, but he was drafted. And he was fortunate to be drafted by a team that really needs him, or at least somebody who plays his position. Most fifth-round picks don’t even get to suit up on Sundays much less play, but Smallwood could have a big role on the 2016 Eagles. In fact, there’s a good chance he’ll see a lot more time than the two players drafted ahead of him by the Eagles, quarterback Carson Wentz and offensive lineman Isaac Seumalo.
Again, it all has to do with the position he plays. For one thing, it’s generally easier for a running back to adjust to the NFL than most players at other positions. A running back is basically handed the ball and told to hit a specific hole – wham, bam, thank you Sam (assuming Bradford is the quarterback in 2016). Players at most other positions have to read a defense, whereas a running back mostly reacts to it, and that takes a lot less experience and/or studying.
Smallwood has also landed with a team that needs help at the position, which is sort of ironic when you consider how overloaded they were at running back last season, with DeMarco Murray, Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles. But Murray is gone, which makes Mathews the workhorse back by default, with Sproles in relief, especially in passing situations.
We have no idea how new coach Doug Pederson and new offensive coordinator Frank Reich will use their running backs, although we assume that running backs coach Duce Staley won’t have the autonomy he has under former coach Chip Kelly, who always said that Staley decided the running back rotation. And Kelly liked to use all of his running backs, which meant there was playing time for everybody.
But even if the new regime wants to just use two runners, it’s well-known that Mathews can’t be relied on to carry the load for an entire season – Mathews has played all 16 games just once in his seven years in the NFL and he missed three games last year with a concussion. And Sproles has never been an every-down back – over his 11-year NFL career he’s averaged about four carries per game and he averaged about five carries last season.
So, there is a very good chance that Smallwood will get a chance to make a real contribution as a rookie, something that doesn’t happen often, especially with a fifth-round pick. Smallwood’s only competition for that third-back role is Kenjon Barner, a third-year player from Oregon (yes, he was acquired by Kelly, who coached him in college). Barner was originally a sixth-round pick of Carolina and the Eagles got him for a seventh-round pick, so it’s not like Barner is a key piece to the puzzle – and if the new regime liked him they wouldn’t have drafted Smallwood.
It’s obvious they like Smallwood. When Howie Roseman was asked what he liked about Smallwood’s game, he said “Explosiveness, decisiveness and toughness.’’
And if there was any doubt that Smallwood has a future with the Eagles, Roseman erased it when he said “There was a lot of love for this player in our draft room.”
By the way, Smallwood is the first Delaware native ever drafted by the Eagles, but two other players from The First State have worn an Eagles’ uniform, and both played at Salesianum School and Villanova University – guard Eddie Michaels, who played in 39 games with the Eagles from 1943-46, and linebacker Kevin Reilly, who played in 25 games from 1973-76.
Finally, there is another Delaware connection, also from Salesianum, but this one is on the sideline – Mike Reed, who was a defensive assistant under Andy Reid from 2003-2006. Reed, a defensive back who played at Boston College, did play in three games over two seasons for the Carolina Panthers, who selected him with the final overall pick in the 1995 draft, making him that year’s “Mr. Irrelevant.”