This is the fifth story in a 10-part preview of the Eagles’ 90-man roster leading up to training camp.
A look at the running back position:
Who’s back: There is obvious optimism about the future of Miles Sanders. As outstanding as he was in his rookie season, there is room for growth considering his youth, and for production considering his talent. He has all the tools to be the Eagles’ three-down workhorse and could threaten various franchise marks for running backs. He already set rookie records with 818 yards rushing and 1,327 yards from scrimmage. The latter number led all NFL rookies in 2019. Only the Chargers’ Austin Ekeler (6.9) and the Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey (5.9) had more yards per touch from scrimmage than Sanders (5.8) among all running backs.
And how about this statistic if you really want to get excited about Sanders’ potential: Only six rookies in NFL history previously produced 800-plus rushing and 500-plus receiving yards: Abner Haynes (1960), Gale Sayers (1965), Billy Sims (1980), Marshall Faulk (1994), Edgerrin James (1999), and Saquon Barkley (2018).
Sanders initially had some struggles on the ground last season. He was at times hesitant or tried too often to kick carries outside. But the more rushes he got, the more disciplined he became. In his first seven games, Sanders averaged 3.5 yards per carry. In his final nine, he averaged 5.2. He displayed agility and athleticism on the ground, but also physicality.
But rushing was just one facet to his game. Sanders also caught 50 passes for 509 yards for a 10.2-yard average. The Eagles were able to effectively match him up against linebackers in coverage early in the season as he became essentially the only downfield threat after receiver DeSean Jackson’s abdominal injury. But as Sanders shifted into a more traditional running-back role — and defenses countered him as a receiver — the Eagles utilized him in the screen game. Coach Doug Pederson didn’t have to worry about having him on the field on third downs because Sanders showed an aptitude for blocking despite little experience in college.
Pederson and the Eagles have had all offseason to implement plays to take advantage of Sanders’ ability in the passing game. But the running back’s expected improvement could vault him among the top runners in the NFL. Sanders wants to be great. He recently said his goal for 2020 was to be the league MVP. I don’t see anything wrong with that, especially when it isn’t out of reach.
Sanders will shoulder his load this coming season, likely more than any Eagles running back since LeSean McCoy, but he will have company in the backfield. Boston Scott has the best chance to make the roster among the other returnees. Scott, like fellow longtime practice-squad member, receiver Greg Ward, made the most of his late-season opportunity. In the Eagles’ final five games, including the playoffs, he rushed for 176 yards on 44 carries (4.0 average) and four touchdowns, and caught 26 passes for 222 yards (8.5 average). While comparisons to Darren Sproles are premature, Scott brought more explosiveness to the backfield and could be the primary complement to Sanders in 2020. The Eagles are expected to add a veteran at some point, but Scott’s finish in 2019 should give him a leg up on other contenders for the third running-back spot.
The Eagles declined to tender unrestricted free agent Corey Clement in March, but the former undrafted rookie and 2017 Super Bowl hero returned to the team when he signed a one-year deal on April 29. His $865,000 base salary isn’t guaranteed, so the Eagles have little to lose in bringing back the South Jersey native. If Clement can return to his 2017 form, there might be a spot on the roster. But injuries plagued him the following two seasons — his 2018 season ended in December with a knee injury; his 2019 season in October with a shoulder injury — and he’ll need to prove that he can stay healthy. The Eagles have kept four running backs before, especially if the fourth can contribute on special teams. Clement has return and cover team experience.
Elijah Holyfield, boxer Evander’s son, was signed off the Panthers’ practice squad just before the playoffs. The Georgia product was undrafted a year ago. He should get plenty of touches once the Eagles convene for training camp.
Who’s gone: Jordan Howard signed a two-year, $10 million contract with the Dolphins in March. He was probably one of the best additions a year ago — the Eagles acquired the Bears tailback in exchange for a 2020 sixth-round pick — but an exit was inevitable. Howard’s north-to-south running style was a welcomed change of pace — until a neck injury effectively ended his season — but the Eagles weren’t likely to dip deep into their salary cap for a backup to Sanders.
The decision to bring back Darren Sproles for another go-around last season was ill-fated. Sproles is the kind of veteran you want in your locker room and on the practice field, but he was long past his prime and had become injury prone. He was sidelined by Week 6 and on injured reserve by Week 10. Ultimately, Sproles would play in just 15 regular-season and two playoff games over his last three seasons in Philly. He announced his retirement in December and was hired by the Eagles as a personnel consultant in February.
Who’s new: The Eagles had offered low-risk contracts to free agents to Carlos Hyde and Devonta Freeman, but the former signed with the Seahawks instead and the latter is still mulling his options, NFL sources said. Freeman, who spent six seasons with the Falcons, mostly as their primary back, is likely hoping to land with a team with a bigger role and money to offer. He’s a low-center-of-gravity runner who would complement Sanders and offer insurance in case of emergency, although he averaged a career-low 3.6 yards on the ground in 2019. If Freeman isn’t the answer, McCoy could be. The Eagles have interest, although they’ve yet to offer a contract, sources said.
They did acquire a couple of rookies after the draft. Mike Warren was a battering ram at Cincinnati. The 5-foot-11, 220-pound tailback punished defenses with his straight-ahead running style and was effective in short-yardage/goal-line situations. I don’t know if he’s a scheme fit, or that his lack of special-teams experience makes him a 53-man roster contender, but it doesn’t hurt to bring in variants at the position. Adrian Killins is listed as a running back, but he likely qualifies more as a gadget guy or returner. He’s small (5-7, 165) and fast (he’s been timed around 4.3 seconds in the 40-yard dash) and will get a look-see because of the Eagles’ need for speed.