Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy is entering the 2014 season with high expectations. In fact, he even got into a public dispute with Minnesota Vikings RB Adrian Peterson after touting himself as “the best running back in the league.”
Though the claim was bold, McCoy did lead the NFL in rushing and yards from scrimmage last season. He thrived in coach Chip Kelly’s offense, weaving through defenses to the tune of 1,607 yards and nine touchdowns in addition to 540 receiving yards and another two scores.
Can the 26-year-old put on a similar show this season? There is no reason not to expect an encore.
Even the best running backs require solid blocking to find running lanes, and no running back received better run blocking last year than McCoy. According to Pro Football Focus, the Eagles ranked as the No. 1 run-blocking offensive line last season. In fact, they led the league in good blocking rate (GBR), preventing opposing defenses from disrupting a running play on 49.6 percent of snaps.
Second-year right tackle Lane Johnson faces a four-game suspension to start the year, which would only be troubling if the team were not returning its other four starters: Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, left guard Evan Mathis, center Jason Kelce and right guard Todd Herremans.
This continuity up front should set the stage for another successful season for McCoy while also allowing coach Chip Kelly to continue tweaking the offense.
Some fans might feel McCoy’s performance could suffer in 2014 following the release of Pro Bowl receiver DeSean Jackson, who many feel opened up running space for McCoy by attracting multiple defenders to contain the speedy receiver.
However, Kelly remains confident the offense will continue to run smoothly even with Jackson now playing for NFC East rival Washington Redskins.
“I think most people played us in single high [safety] coverage and they played man across the board on anybody and no one was getting any help,” Kelly said. “DeSean was getting man on his side.”
“No one is going to play us in two [safeties] deep because if you play us in two deep, we can run the heck out of the ball. We had everybody as close to the line of scrimmage as possible and nobody was helping anybody. They were trying to stop the run game.”
Even if Jackson did garner extra attention last season, the Eagles feature enough playmakers on offense—running back Darren Sproles, receiver Jeremy Maclin and tight end Zach Ertz, for example—to keep defenders honest as they attempt to slow down McCoy.
Besides, Jackson was underwhelming at best as a run-blocker and displayed a noticeable lack of effort on plays not designed for him to catch the ball.
In an attempt to replace his production, the Eagles drafted Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews and Oregon’s Josh Huff, two exciting prospects who represent immediate upgrades as run-blockers at receiver over Jackson and should earn ample playing time in his absence.
Last season, McCoy averaged 5.1 yards per carry, a number which could increase even further this season due to the acquisition of Sproles from the New Orleans Saints and an increased role coming for third-year player Chris Polk.
Both Sproles and Polk figure to chew into McCoy’s workload. McCoy will still remain a cornerstone of the Eagles offense, but after he earned 314 carries in 2013, Kelly and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur hope to have him shoulder a lighter load this season.
McCoy is also primed for another big year because he enters this season an even smarter, faster player. After all, Kelly demands perfection and expects meticulous preparation and execution.
“Not running in the correct hole gets him very angry,” McCoy told the NFL Network’s Rich Eisen. “The cool thing about Chip is he has such a great personality where he actually wants the best for the player, and there’s times where we have these talks, and everything is to help the player out…That’s something that he helps me out with to be a better player.”
McCoy expects to be a better player this season after limiting the junk food in his diet, especially late-night snacking on Doritos. Because of the demands of Kelly’s fast-paced offense, McCoy used a stricter diet to trim five pounds off his 215-pound frame from last season.
McCoy says a five-pound weight loss would mean very little to a back who makes plays by running over defenders, but he feels every extra pound matters because of his elusive running style.
“At a lighter [weight], I feel like I’m so much more effective,” McCoy said. “I looked at all my old film and saw how much quicker I was when I was 210 [pounds], 209. It’s a big difference. And I’m feeling like that again.”
“Nowadays, obviously you’ve got to be strong, but the quicker you are, the faster you are, the better you are. Big guys can’t get on you.”
McCoy has worked hard this offseason to ensure he can replicate last year’s performance. With a disappointing 2012 campaign still lingering in his head, he fears following his stellar 2013 showing with a down year. In 2011, McCoy rushed for 1,309 yards and 17 touchdowns en route to a five-year, $45 million deal but then failed to reach the 1,000-yard mark the following season.
“I'm trying to capitalize off that—have a real dominant year, come back with another one,” McCoy said. “I have the teammates and most importantly, I have the linemen to do it. So just trying to stay in shape, stay lean, and stay aggressive.”
Armed with the right mindset, expect McCoy to be flying high again next season.