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Eagles' DeMarco Murray will have to share the load

PHILADELPHIA -- With the start of training camp approaching, the Philadelphia Eagles still have some unanswered questions. Here’s a look at those soon-to-be-solved mysteries.

Unanswered question No. 2: DeMarco Murray led the NFL with 392 rushing attempts for the Cowboys in 2014. He also had 57 receptions and 48 postseason touches for a total of 497 total plays with the ball in his hands. Chip Kelly says he will distribute carries among Murray, Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles. How will that work?

It will be interesting, to say the least. Kelly talks about breaking up the workload among his backs at Oregon, but guess who had the most carries among NFL backs in 2013? LeSean McCoy, with 314. McCoy carried the ball another 312 times in 2014, so Kelly had his primary back carry the ball 626 times in two NFL seasons.

This is always a tricky area. Many backs love carrying the ball a lot. It helps them get into a rhythm and helps them wear defenders down. Murray was enjoying his 2014 season so much, he underwent surgery for a broken hand on Dec. 15. He practiced two days later and, four days after that, played against the Indianapolis Colts.

So Murray would almost certainly accept a similar workload this year to the one he had last year. He won’t be asking for many breathers.

But Kelly thinks it is important to limit the punishment that Murray absorbs. His plan going into the offseason was to add two backs to replace McCoy. As far as Kelly is concerned, the Eagles got lucky that McCoy remained healthy through 626 carries. He wants a second back in case of an injury to the main guy, but he also wants to spread the work out to lower the risk of such an injury.

In Kelly’s two seasons, the Eagles have run the ball about 30 times per game. With these three backs, let’s say that Kelly could nudge that up to 35 runs per game. With that amount of work to share, Murray could carry the ball 18 times, Mathews could get it 12 times and Sproles could get maybe five carries.

Over a full 16-game season, that would mean 288 carries for Murray, 192 carries for Mathews and 80 carries for Sproles.

That would be the second-most carries of Murray’s career, behind only last season. That assumes he plays all 16 games, something he hadn’t done in his first three NFL seasons.

For Mathews, 192 carries would be right in the middle of his career totals. For most of those seasons, Mathews has missed games because of injuries, as well. In his best season, 2013, Mathews carried the ball 285 times for 1,255 yards. That averages out to 17.8 carries per game.

Sproles carried the ball 57 times last season. He has carried it more than 80 times just twice in his career. Kelly could drop the number of carries a bit by throwing the ball to Sproles instead.

Ultimately, those numbers would be well within the range that the three backs are comfortable with. Each would be getting enough work to feel involved while getting enough rest to remain fresh through the season.

Over the past five years, the teams that ran for the most yards tended to have a workhorse back. Last year, Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch had 285 carries. With help from quarterback Russell Wilson (118 carries), the Seahawks led the NFL in rushing yards. Dallas, with Joseph Randle getting just 51 carries in support of Murray and his 392, was second. The New York Jets were third, with Chris Ivory (198 carries) and Chris Johnson (155) sharing the load.

In 2013: McCoy carried the ball 314 times while Bryce Brown was second on the league-leading Eagles with 75 carries. Buffalo was second with Fred Jackson (206 carries) and C.J. Spiller (202) getting equal time. In San Francisco, Frank Gore (276 carries) got help from his quarterback, Colin Kaepernick (92 carries).

In 2012: Alfred Morris was the workhorse in Washington with 335 carries. Quarterback Robert Griffin III had 120 carries, second most on the team. Adrian Peterson had 348 carries in Minnesota. Quarterback Christian Ponder was a distant second with 60 rushes. Lynch had 315 carries in Seattle, while Wilson was second on the team with 94 carries.

In 2011: Quarterbacks figured heavily again. Denver led the NFL in rushing yards with Willis McGahee carrying the ball 249 times. Tim Tebow was second with 122 carries. Arian Foster (278 carries) and Ben Tate (175) shared the workload in Houston, while Carolina was third without a 1,000-yard rusher. DeAngelo Williams (155), Jonathan Stewart (142) and Cam Newton (126) each had over 100 carries.

In 2010: Running backs ruled five years ago. Kansas City led the NFL in rushing yards with Thomas Jones (245 carries) and Jamaal Charles (230) splitting the work. Oakland had Darren McFadden (223) and Michael Bush (158), while Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew (299 carries) did the lion’s share with support from Rashad Jennings (84).

Bottom line: There are as many ways to share the load as there are teams. By committing to the run, and with an effective offensive line, Kelly can mix and match backs as he sees fit. One thing is for sure, though. Unless Tebow is his quarterback, Kelly can’t count on getting Wilson or Kaepernick production from that position.