Plug-and-play running backs came in all shapes and sizes in the 2017 NFL draft.
Donnel Pumphrey can describe them all, for he was part of the class.
Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey came off the board in the top 10 picks after running smoldering 40-yard dashes at the combine. The second round featured first-round talents Dalvin Cook and Joe Mixon, who slid due to character questions.
It's still hard to believe teams let Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt and James Conner drop into the third round.
Even the third day of the draft included gems like Tarik Cohen, Marlon Mack, Samaje Perine and Wayne Gallman getting selected.
Which brings us to Pumphrey, who ran faster than Hunt at the combine and roomed with him in Indianapolis.
Pumphrey (5-8, 178) wasn’t the biggest back in the group, but he set the FBS record with 6,405 rushing yards at San Diego State. He clocked 4.48 in the 40 at the combine and trained with fellow San Diego State alum Marshall Faulk, the Hall of Fame creation of the St. Louis Rams.
The Eagles barely had taken Pumphrey off the board in the fourth round when player personnel director Joe Douglas remarked, “Don’t let the size fool you. He’s a little dog that thinks he’s a big dog and he plays that way.”
Three years later Douglas has moved on to the New York Jets, where he controls the draft and the 53-man roster, and Pumphrey still is trying to win a job with the Eagles and get his first pro carry.
Only Pumphrey knows how frustrating it’s been. Just the mention of Douglas, who was in his corner, ignites his passion.
“He said, ‘I’m the reason why you’re here so don’t let me down,’” Pumphrey said. “He said he’d been watching me all through college. It was one of those things where once he left, I was like, ‘dang.’ I wanted to be able to showcase my ability, my talent in front of him. I wanted to be able to play in front of him. But I’m still an Eagle and I don’t want to let the guys upstairs down. Howie (Roseman) is part of the reason I’m still here and I’ve got to take advantage of my opportunity.”
Pumphrey looks fluid and energetic this week at the Birds' mini-camp, where contact is minimal and timing is key. He and Wendell Smallwood are the top pass-catching backs in this setting. But the competition is steep.
Newcomer Jordan Howard is the de facto starter. Josh Adams, who led the squad in rushing last year, isn’t practicing as he rehabs from a shoulder injury. Corey Clement isn’t all the way back from a quad. Rookie second-round pick Miles Sanders of Penn State, who's supposed to be a part of the offense, hasn’t helped himself by missing virtually all of the practices with a lower body injury.
Injuries wrecked Pumphrey’s rookie season. The Eagles wound up signing LeGarrette Blount and trading for Jay Ajay, then went on to win a Super Bowl.
Pumphrey was all over the map last year, swinging between the practice squads of the Eagles and the Detroit Lions. It wasn’t supposed to work like that.
“It’s disappointing, but then again, patience is a virtue,” Pumphrey said. “We’ve had great running backs come through here since I’ve been here. It was just really a waiting experience. I feel like I’ve learned a lot within the running back room and with the mental reps. I feel great. I definitely feel a lot more experienced than in the past. I feel more comfortable. I feel like I’m back to myself again.”
The last time Pumphrey felt this comfortable was a couple of years ago at the combine. And he doesn't think it's a coincidence. There is a quiet confidence about him now, which may have something to do with residing in San Diego in the offseason, where he's trained with Darren Sproles.
You learn a lot working out with Sproles, who turns 36 in a week but is preparing as if he might play a 14th season.
“He always kills me,” Pumphrey said. “I’ve learned a lot watching him work. He’s still training as if he’s coming back. That’s motivation right there seeing him, at year 14, still training like that. I trained with him and I stretched differently, continued to stay in shape and stay as loose as possible. I take care of my body a lot more than I have in the past.”
Pumphrey wouldn’t say if Sproles would give football another shot, responding “It’s between him and me.”
As for Pumphrey, he feels comfortable at running back, returning punts and kickoffs and even playing slot, if necessary. He hopes he can do it for the Eagles. But he knows how the game works. He realizes how important it is to stay healthy. The grind of the NFL can bury unsuspecting prospects.
“You never know how things work out,” Pumphrey said. “You get cut here and you get picked up somewhere else. You never know. But I want to prove to the people here that I’m meant to be here and they didn’t waste a draft pick on me.”