Why has Kenneth Gainwell Disappeared in the Philadelphia Eagle’s Offense?

The Eagles are always very active when it comes to trades. Howie Roseman is always looking for ways to add pieces, or trade to improve his draft standing. Whether he is looking for more picks, a specific position or role that needs help, or simply to move on from players that are no longer in your plans, he is always listening to or putting together offers. It was no surprise to see this again this season with rumors that the Eagles were in search of a running back. For that matter, I’ve been a vocal supporter of adding a running back. The surprising part was the role they looked to fill.

For most of the last two decades, the Eagles have included their running backs heavily in the passing game. With names like Brian Westbrook, Darren Sproles, and LeSean McCoy, it’s not hard to see the trend here. Last season they selected Kenneth Gainwell to play as their first running back off the bench in passing situations. Gainwell finished the season with nearly as many targets, 50, as he had carries, 68. It made too much sense. He was 5’9 201 lbs, a close comparison to Darren Sproles a man who will forever be beloved in the city of Philadelphia.

Latest in a Long Line of Pass Catching Running Backs

Gainwell was once a highly touted dual-threat high school quarterback, it wasn’t until he got to Memphis that he transitioned to running back. However, for the Yazoo County High School graduate, it was a natural transition. Gainwell rushed for nearly 1,100 yards more than he threw for during his time in high school. After arriving at Memphis, Gainwell quickly made the move to running back. His college career ultimately wouldn’t allow for much playing time to grow into the position.

During his true freshman year, he played in 4 games, opting to redshirt to retain eligibility. He would end the year with 10 touches for 143 yards. With Tony Pollard headed to the draft that offseason it paved the way for Gainwell now a redshirt freshman to start. In 2019 Gainwell showed exactly what he could do at running back. Playing in 14 games he had 231 carries for 1,459 yards and 13 touchdowns, adding 51 receptions for 610 yards and 3 touchdowns. Then it was over…

As quickly as his time as the starter came, it went. With the end of 2019 came COVID-19. Some of us were hit very hard by the pandemic and one of those was Gainwell. He would lose multiple family members to the virus, and in turn, decided it was best for his family if he opted out of the 2020 season. Having technically just completed his freshman season, Gainwell had all of his eligibility left. He could have decided to return to Memphis in 2021. Instead, he declared for the NFL Draft after just one amazing season.

I will not attempt to speculate why he made this choice, maybe he would have been picked higher if he had played more in college, and maybe it negatively affects his stock if he gets injured. Whatever the reasoning after his one-season performance, he was projected as a 4th round pick. The analyst’s version of a guy who isn’t a starter right now, but could be one down the line. According to this valuation, the Eagles were able to get Gainwell at a discount. Selecting him in the 5th round.

Professional Career

Despite his status as a rookie, or the depth Philly had, Gainwell was kept on the 53-man roster all year. He would make an impact throughout the season. Ending the year with 68 carries for 291 yards and 6 touchdowns while catching 33 passes for 253 yards and 1 touchdown. It would appear he had cemented the role of the pass catcher in the running back room. Gainwell finished the season 5th in targets and 4th in receptions. Falling behind only DeVonta Smith, Quez Watkins, Jalen Reagor, and Dallas Goedert. Ultimately the rookie class of Smith, Watkins, and Gainwell accounted for 216 of the 494 passes the Eagles threw in 2021, or 43%.

Granted things have changed a lot since last season. Jordan Howard and Zach Ertz are gone, and Aj Brown and Zach Paschal are here. Through 8 games, Hurts had attempted 239 passes. Of those 239 attempts, the 2021 rookies have accounted for just 78 targets, 53 of which have gone to Smith. This accounts for 32% of the target share, while Brown himself has 69 targets or 28% of the target share. The biggest casualties of this effect are Kenneth Gainwell and Quez Watkins who have combined for just 25 targets so far or 10.5% of the targets.

Overnight the Eagles’ offense went from spreading the ball around with many faces getting a large share of the targets, to an offense that is force-feeding just three players. Aj Brown, DeVonta Smith, and Dallas Goedert. All three have 41 or more targets, no other player has over 13. One role that has all but been eliminated is the designated pass-catching running back.

Is Gainwell in the Dog House?

Gainwell has just 9 targets through 7 games. Sanders has 13, and Boston Scott has just 1. No other back has been targeted at all. So my question is, what happened? Why is Gainwell all of a sudden not being utilized in the passing game despite producing nearly as many yards through the air as he did on the ground? Is this as simple as a change in philosophy or is this a deeper cut at the backs on the roster?

Well following the trade deadline it would appear the Eagles felt they needed an upgrade in this role. Before the deadline, the Eagles were connected to Alvin Kamara, Nyheim Hines, and Kareem Hunt. All three of these backs have something in common. They have logged at least one season with 50 or more receptions. Hunt is likely the lesser of the three players in this regard, while Hines is essentially a wide receiver in a running back’s body, and Kamara is the kind of do it all back that any offense could benefit from due to his streak of 4 straight 80+ reception seasons. So I’ll ask again what happened with Gainwell that he suddenly isn’t good enough in this role?

What Would Lead to This?

Is it his catch rate? Gainwell caught 66% of his targets in 2021, Kamara 70%, Hunt 81%, and Hines 70%. Are the Eagles worried about a 4% increase in catch rate? While this may have played a part, it’s merely one factor of many.

What about pass blocking? Hines was the highest at 59.8, Hunt wasn’t far behind at 51.2, while Kamara currently has an abysmal 17.9 grade. Where does Gainwell rank? 21st with a 62.3 grade. He also falls behind Sanders who has an 86.4 grade the second-highest in the league. 

Maybe Receiving Grade? Hines leads the way here with a 74.7 grade. Kamara is next with a 67.8. Hunt has a 60.9, while Gainwell has a 40.4 grade. This grade is so low due to a lack of opportunity in the passing game. Gainwell has 9 targets and 5 receptions. He is credited with 2 drops and has managed less than 6 yards per reception. In 2021 he scored a 73.6 grade, producing 7.6 yards per reception. He was credited with 5 drops on the season. This is where the majority of the concern comes from

Eagles Running Back Needs

I don’t think the Eagles needed to add another pass catcher, they simply need to focus on developing Gainwell in this role. Two drops on nine attempts is ugly, but you can’t expect anyone to be perfect. Gainwell was a weapon in year one. Producing over 500 yards of offense, and 7 touchdowns as the third back was impressive. Many fans expected a larger role for him with Howard gone. Ironically he has averaged fewer carries per game and fewer targets per game.

With just two other runners getting involved in the run game, there is no reason not to feed Gainwell and at least give him a chance to prove himself once again. After all, this man has played running back for just 3 1/2 seasons so far. Let the coaches do their job and develop a young player with a lot of potential.

Final Words

If we were going to seek out a running back it made a lot more sense to go after Cam Akers, James Robinson, or my personal favorite Gus Edwards. Philly needs a big back who can play smash-mouth football for the stretch run. Many believe Trey Sermon is that guy. Maybe they’re right but so far he has barely played. Appearing in just 10 offensive snaps so far. The 49ers spent a 3rd round pick just two seasons ago for Sermon but he has since been waived. The Eagles claimed him off waivers and they awarded him. Interesting times in Philadelphia this season. With the team 8-0 heading into their Monday match-up with division foe Washington, high hopes abound in Philly.

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