Welcome back to the position-by-position breakdown of the 2008 Philadelphia Eagles. Today, we'll look at the Birds' running game heading into the 2008 season.
The Starter: Brian Westbrook
I read a column last week where Brian Westbrook was deemed, “The greatest back to play in the West Coast offense” or what I have renamed the “Walsh Pro-Set.” I believe some fans out in San Francisco believe Roger Craig would have something to say about that. Arguably, Brian Westbrook is the best multi-purpose back the NFL since Marshall Faulk.
Westbrook, entering his seventh season, has ducked, dodged and weaved his way into the upper echelon of running backs. The Vikings’ Adrian Peterson and the Chargers’ LaDainian Tomlinson may get more ink, but neither posses the hands nor escapability of "36 West."
In 2007, Westbrook set an Eagles all-purpose record of 2,104 yards. He would finish third in the NFL with 1,333 rushing yards and lead all backs with 771 receiving yards.
The biggest surprise last season was Westbrook’s durability, which was rewarded by an increased workload. Seven times last season Westbrook carried the ball 20 or more times, including a 32-tote performance against the Dolphins in November.
Not counting the season finale against Buffalo, B West had no less than 14 carries in a game. It looks like Andy Reid is over being gun shy about giving Brian the ball in heavy doses. The coaching staff has also done a better job of getting Westbrook the ball in space, causing instant mismatches with linebackers and even an occasional corner or two will get juked.
With a new deal in place, Westbrook can focus on the season and channel his energy towards solidifying his position as one of the NFL's elite backs.
Second String: Correll Buckhalter/Lorenzo Booker
It’s hard to root against a player like Correll Buckhalter. The fourth-round pick out of Nebraska in 2001 has battled back from three major knee-injuries over the course of his career to cement himself as Westbrook’s backup for the past two seasons, as well as assisting in the return game.
Buck's ability to run in between the tackles is invaluable, as it spares Westbrook the unnecessary pounding. His average of five-yards per carry last season was a career high. A favorite of many of his teammates, Andy Reid would be hard pressed to find a reason not to bring Buckhalter back.
The lone threat to Buckhalter holding down the backup position comes in the form of second-year back Lorenzo Booker, acquired in a draft-day trade with the Miami Dolphins. He is slated to help in the return game and spell Westbrook.
Booker, who is being looked upon as “another draft pick” by Reid, is considered faster and more elusive than Buckhalter, but has struggled in the return game and has been replaced by rookie Quintin Demps. Booker will make the cut as a third back.
Third String: Ryan Moats/Tony Hunt
Ryan Moats is a frustrating football player. After giving us a glimpse of what he could become, in the second half of the 2005 season, he has struggled with injuries and, at times, the intricacies of the system.
His inability to find a niche on the team has placed him in the doghouse on a few occasions. Moats was on the fence before breaking his ankle last year as the preseason drew to a close.
The Eagles are going to keep at least three backs, which means Moats is going to have to beat out three backs. He has a better chance of breaking through on the kick-return team (DeSean Jackson will return punts, he has never returned kickoffs), other than that, it may be the practice squad or an all-out release for Moats.
The clock has officially started ticking on the career of second-year running back Tony Hunt. Hunt was somewhat of a disappointment, as he failed to beat out Buckhalter for the backup spot last season.
At 6′2″, 230-pounds, Hunt could remedy the Birds' woeful running game inside the 10-yard line. Reid has put Hunt in the mix for the fullback position, which tells me that he likes Hunt, and he's trying to find a spot for him to make a contribution.
Hunt's ability to get short yardage is not in question; it's the blocking schemes that he struggles with. Reid's fondness for Hunt may force him to keep four backs.