By Dylan MacKinnon
The depth behind Miles Sanders at RB last year for the Eagles was thin, and that is being generous. Boston Scott showed promise tin 2019, but wasn’t especially effective in a limited role last year. In fact he had more than 5 rushes only 4 times in all of the 2020 season. After Scott, the next RB is Jordan Howard, who had only 36 touches last season, and only 7 with the Eagles. Enter Kenneth Gainwell, who the Eagles took with the 150th pick. But is the Memphis back, who exploded onto the scene in 2019, before opting out in 2020 the answer?
Explosive in 2019
Gainwell’s 2019 season was incredible. He had 2069 yards from scrimmage. That includes 1459 yards on the ground, and 610 through the air. That was good enough to be the 4th most scrimmage yards in the country, just ahead of this years first round RB Travis Etienne from Clemson. Also 12th in the nation in rushing yards, plus 1st in receiving yards among RBs. there was only one game all year he didn’t have at least 100 scrimmage yards. All that to go with 16 total touchdowns, which was 3rd in the AAC.
All this was good enough to make the All-AAC team, and for him to be a finalist Doak Walker Award.
Going through some Day 3 picks...#Memphis RB Kenneth Gainwell to the #Eagles —— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) May 1, 2021
It’s the receiving traits. Release out of the backfield (below) or flex outside to run fades, corners, crossers.
PHI can run two-back sets — with Gainwell & Sanders on the field. @NFLMatchup pic.twitter.com/F08SS3TEb2
What Will His Role Be
The consensus among scouts is he projects to play a bigger role in a team’s passing game than he does in the running game. Not to say he can’t carry the ball, but his smaller frame will limit the load he can bear in the running game.
Gainwell fits the mold of someone like Darren Sproles, meaning limited touches, but hopefully big results. He’s at his best in space where his quickness can make defenders miss. Also similar to Sproles, he can be an effective blocker despite his slight frame. Just look what he did to Micah Parsons with a chip.
Motivated by His Brother
One day while working out in his college gym, Kenneth’s brother Curtis said he felt what he thought was a bad headache. It turned out he was suffering a stroke, a major one. At 18 years old, he needed 3 brain surgeries in a single day.
Curtis faced a long recovery to once again be able to walk and to talk. And while he grinded in rehab, Curtis pushed his brother Kenneth to grind to be a better player and athlete. Kenneth talked about how his brother would push him in a piece produced by ESPN.
“He would make us just come out there early in the morning. Go from the tire to the ladder. Straight from the ladder to some weights. because he was my motivation, knowing he wasn’t gone, but he could have been gone… My brother’s stroke made we work as hard as I could.”
What the Experts Think
One-year starter with underwhelming size but overwhelming production. Gainwell is a challenging study as a slasher with average burst and speed but excellent change-of-direction talent. His propensity for taking on monster contact as an inside runner should be a concern based on his frame. He does an excellent job of reading blockers/defenders and makes buttery smooth cuts to change his rush track while keeping his feet ready if another quick cut is needed. His willingness in pass protection and talent out of the backfield should help him find a home as a backup running back with third-down value.
A dynamic playmaker in 2019, Gainwell has good vision, elusiveness, footwork, pass-catching ability, and a surprising amount of power given his build. Memphis featured him as both a runner and receiver and his pass-catching skills should be a big part of his role in the NFL. The Tigers got him involved in the screen game and from the slot, where he features good route-running skills, reliable hands, and creativity in space. With only one year of time at the running back position in a spread offense like Memphis, Gainwell has a considerable transition ahead of him to the NFL. His frame is somewhat long and lean and he would be well-served to bulk up to fill out his frame but also add functional strength. Gainwell has the potential to become the focal point of an NFL backfield as a multifaceted weapon.
Gainwell isn’t going to be 3 down, 20 carry a game back. But that isn’t what the Eagles needed. What he can be is a dynamic play maker off the bench. Someone to come in, catch screens and wheel routes, and be a easy target for Hurts. He will also be able to help protect Hurts by being an effective blocker who knows how to use a chip to buy his QB some extra time. They will him to use him efficiently though, because his small frame will limit how many touches he can get. But there is no reason he won’t be a productive backup if properly utilized.