Eagles 2024 Training Camp Preview: The Running Backs

Much is expected of free-agent acquisition Saquon Barkley, who is finally set to play with an impressive supporting cast.
May 30, 2024; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles running back Saquon Barkley (26) runs with the ball during practice at NovaCare Complex.
May 30, 2024; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles running back Saquon Barkley (26) runs with the ball during practice at NovaCare Complex. / Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
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PHILADELPHIA - The Eagles zigged where they typically zag at running back, a position the organization has devalued in the modern era.

GM Howie Roseman will tell you the course correction of signing Saquon Barkley to a three-year, $37.75 contract in free agency is not necessarily a change in philosophy for Philadelphia.

The Eagles have always kept their minds open to what they feel are difference-making running backs who can impact the game as both a runner and receiver. For instance, the organization would have drafted Christian McCaffrey in 2017 had the now-49ers star fallen to No. 14 in the draft.

In 2023, Philadelphia wouldn’t have selected Bijan Robinson as long as emerging star defensive tackle Jalen Carter remained on the board. If the Atlanta Falcons’ back, who went No. 8 overall, started to drift later into the first round the Eagles would have gotten aggressive to snare him.

Roseman puts Barkley, 27, in that same category or at least close to it with words like “special” and “weapon” used to describe the 2018 No. 2 overall pick.

Barkley looked like all of that as a rookie with the Giants but hasn’t since, especially after his 2020 torn ACL, never mind the guy with a significant knee injury on the resume with 1,500 touches of wear and tear over six years.

Fair or not, the Giants simply did not win much with Barkley as the centerpiece of their organization, something that the Eagles write off to the supporting cast the RB was dealing with.

Those kinds of explanations (or excuses) will evaporate in Philadelphia where there is a proven quarterback, a top-five offensive line, a very good tight end, and perhaps the best receiving duo in the NFL.

The nebulous standard of impact will be how Barkley is judged and considering the last two lead backs in Philadelphia – Miles Sanders and D’Andre Swift – produced to the tune of over 1,000 yards at over or near 5.0 yards per carry, that’s where it starts with Barkley.

Barkley is also expected to be much more of a threat in the passing game with a quarterback in Jalen Hurts who has never shown a real affinity to getting RBs involved in that aspect, even talented receivers like Swift and Kenny Gainwell.

The truth is that Barkley is a better back than Sanders and/or Swift especially when it comes to the unheralded task of pass protection. The hype that Roseman needlessly played into to better explain his unconventional decision has probably generated unrealistic expectations when it comes to Barkley, who is in Philadelphia to be elevated by the supporting cast, not the other way around.

The main backup remains Gainwell, a player head coach Nick Sirianni is very comfortable with and someone he trusts in high-leverage situations, something that will certainly be passed on to new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore.

Eagles RB Kenny Gainwell
Nov 26, 2023; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Eagles running back Kenneth Gainwell (14) celebrates touchdown run by quarterback Jalen Hurts (1) (not pictured) against the Buffalo Bills during the first quarter at Lincoln Financial Field. / Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Rookie fourth-round pick Will Shipley slots in at the RB3 and showed incremental improvement in the spring. When OTAs began the former Clemson star seemed to be fighting the football as a receiver but calmed down nicely.

All three backs are a little redundant when it comes to skill sets although Barkley has the size and power Gainwell and Shipley do not. 

That said, if the Eagles want a bigger chain-mover it will have to come from the trio of Ty Davis Price, a 2022 third-round pick by San Francisco, former FBS rushing king Lew Nichols, or undrafted rookie Kendall Milton. 

Depth Chart: 

RB1 Saquon Barkley; RB2 Kenny Gainwell; RB3 Will Shipley; RB4 Ty Davis-Price; RB5 Lew Nichols; RB6 Kendall Milton

WHAT’S CHANGED: Barkley replaces D’Andre Swift, who is back in the NFC North with the Chicago Bears. Swift, a Philadelphia native, ran for a career-high 1,049 yards at 4.6 yards per clip while earning a Pro Bowl berth in his return home last season. 

Swift was not happy about his use in the passing game, though, managing just 39 receptions for 214 yards after averaging over 50 catches per season as a part-time player in Detroit.

Only matching those numbers for Barkley would be a huge disappointment. 

Gainwell returns as the RB2 after a career-high 364 rushing yards and 30 receptions. He will be in the final year of his rookie deal so there is plenty to play for.

Shipley is the replacement for rock-solid veteran Boston Scott, who ended up being the lead kick returner over the past two seasons and was most noted for being a NY Giants killer. Scott, signed with the Los Angeles  Rams after seeing the writing on the wall once Shipley was drafted. 

Little-used veteran Rashaad Penny arrived in Philadelphia with a ton of hype but played in just three games all season with 11 carries. He signed with Carolina as a free agent.

COACHING: Jemal Singleton returns for his fourth season as Sirianni’s assistant head coach/running backs. A well-regarded member of the staff, Singleton is known for his unique ball-security drills where the former military man pounds at the football relentlessly with a boxing glove.

Singleton has coached Sanders and Swift to Pro Bowl berths and has contributed to one of the NFL’s best running games over his tenure. Now he’s got the most talented back he’s ever had so expectations will rise even further.

THE CEILING: Barkley is everything Roseman billed him as being and becomes the Eagles’ best three-down back since LeSean McCoy while Gainwell settles in as one of the better backups in the league, and Shipley shows real long-term promise as the developmental option.

THE LONGSHOT: Milton, an UDFA out of Georgia, was billed as a big, one-cut chain mover but he showed some juice in the passing game when Tanner McKee would get him the football in the flat.

WHO STAYS/GOES: You can lock in Barkley, Gainwell, and Shipley on the initial 53 barring injury. The remaining trio of Davis-Price, Nichols, and Milton might have to impress on two fronts when it comes to the 53, both as a downhill runner and on special teams. 

If one breaks through, the other two will likely be battling for a practice squad spot. If none are deemed worthy for the initial 53, Roseman will likely populate the PS with two bodies and utilize the three elevations if needed.

Milton showed the most in the spring but big backs tend to separate when the pads come on so there is plenty of opportunity to change that narrative for Davis-Price and Nichols.

MORE NFL: Eagles 2024 Training Camp Preview: The Quarterbacks

John McMullen


John McMullen is a veteran reporter who has covered the NFL for over two decades. The current NFL insider for JAKIB Media, John is the former NFL Editor for The Sports Network where his syndicated column was featured in over 200 outlets including the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Miami Herald. He was also the national NFL columnist for Today's Pigskin as well as FanRag Sports. McMullen has covered the Eagles on a daily basis since 2016, first for ESPN South Jersey and now for Eagles Today on SI.com's FanNation. You can listen to John, alongside legendary sports-talk host Jody McDonald every morning from 8-10 on ‘Birds 365,” streaming live on YouTube.com. John is also the host of his own show "Extending the Play" on AM1490 in South Jersey and part of 6ABC.com's live postgame show after every Eagles game. You can reach him at jmcmullen44@gmail.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen