When Miles Sanders got a reminder that the regular season is nearly over, there was a twinge of disappointment and disbelief in his voice.
“Aw, man," the Eagles rookie running back said. “It’s been 15 [games] already? It’s what, Week 17? Sheesh.”
Sanders has good reason to wish the season would keep grinding on. He’s emerging as the Eagles’ lead running back and one of the best offensive rookies in the NFL.
In the Eagles’ last three games against division rivals, Sanders averaged 4.56 yards per carry on 54 attempts for 82 rushing yards per game. He has gained more than 150 yards from scrimmage in each of the last two games. He broke off a 56-yard run against Washington two weeks ago and had a 38-yarder against Dallas on Sunday that could have been a touchdown run had he not knelt well before the end zone to ice the victory.
On Tuesday, Sanders said he still hasn’t gotten the hang of talking himself up. Fortunately for him, his coaches and teammates are happy to do it for him.
“He’s balling out,” guard Brandon Brooks said after the Cowboys game. “The game is slowing down for him. He’s looking good out there, man. He’s smooth when he runs. I would say everyone knows he’s fast, but he has deceptive speed. He’s a lot faster than people think. Maybe because he’s a long strider, but [shoot], when he gets going, he can really move."
Brooks played with former All-Pro running back Arian Foster in Houston, and said he has talked to Foster about Sanders because of the similarities he sees. The Pro Bowl guard said he planned to connect the two running backs in the offseason.
Sanders has yet to receive any accolades, but he’s making a late push into the race for offensive rookie of the year. His main competition consists of Oakland Raiders running back Josh Jacobs, Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, and Tennessee Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown.
Among rookies, Sanders trails only Jacobs’ 1,316 yards from scrimmage, which adds up rushing and receiving yards. His 1,590 all-purpose yards, which includes kickoff and punt returns, leads all rookies. Jacobs, the only running back selected in the first round of April’s NFL Draft, is questionable for Oakland’s season finale on Sunday. If Jacobs is sidelined, Sanders would need just 41 yards to surpass Jacobs in the rankings.
“I’ve got a lot more stuff to worry about instead of just worrying about rookie of the year,” Sanders said. “If it comes, it comes. But I’m trying to get this playoff berth.”
Sanders, who was picked 53rd in the draft, has slowly seen his workload increase due to the absence of Jordan Howard, who is to return Sunday after missing six games with a shoulder stinger. Sanders set a career high for carries in each of the last two weeks, running 19 times against Washington and 20 times against the Cowboys.
Against Washington, he broke both LeSean McCoy’s record for most rushing yards by a rookie (637 in 2009) and DeSean Jackson’s rookie record for most yards from scrimmage (1,008 in 2008). He’s gained more than 150 scrimmage yards in each of the last two games and has scored three touchdowns.
“That’s why we drafted him, obviously, for these types of games and performances,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said after the Cowboys game. “He seems to get a little bit stronger and a little bit better each week. He had another good performance tonight.”
The hard work for the rookie isn’t done yet. Sanders said Eagles running backs coach Duce Staley’s film sessions still offer plenty of reminders of how much more he can improve.
“Even when I have good games like y’all see, y’all don’t see the little stuff that I miss,” Sanders said. “That’s what Duce is really hard on me about. We come in after every game, and we’ll watch film and see how many yards I missed out on. There’s always stuff to improve on.”
The last few tape studies haven’t been without positives, though. Especially considering the nature of Sunday’s win against the Cowboys, which kept the Eagles’ playoff hopes alive.
Sanders, 22, said Staley praised his ability to step up in high-stakes games against division rivals.
“He said I’m playing at a high level,” Sanders said. “Last game was big-boy football. That’s what it was going to come down to. Dallas vs. the Eagles, with the division on the line. Even this game, division is on the line. New York is going to give us their best, they’re going to try and ruin our season. We got business to handle.”