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Miles Sanders’ future with the Eagles is up in the air — and it has little to do with his injury | David Murphy

Once upon a time, Sanders would have been in line for a nice extension. But as he enters a contract year, the Eagles must decide if the running back position is worth the cost.

Eagles running back Miles Sanders fighting off Washington Football Team defenders last week.
Eagles running back Miles Sanders fighting off Washington Football Team defenders last week.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

A pair of moments from a Sunday afternoon — one instructive, the other ominous — set the stage for a tricky Eagles offseason.

The first: Saquon Barkley plants his foot, changes his direction, and looks like any other running back as he falls forward for a couple of extra yards. The gain is a modest one — respectable, even — but it looks nothing like it might have three years earlier. The wall of defenders does not explode around him. The tacklers do not fall to the turf like bricks in a Kool-Aid commercial. A superstar does not emerge from a Saquon-size hole. The whistle blows. The bodies untangle. The play clock restarts.

The second: Miles Sanders walks off the sideline with a limp left hand, en route to the locker room, and an X-ray machine, and another unfortunate diagnosis. A day that begins in uniform will end in a hospital bed, his arm wrapped in a cast, a broken bone threatening his season.

There they were, a couple of former college teammates living out the reality of life at the running back position. And there we were, trapped amidst the ghosts of Christmas past and present, wondering what the future held.

» READ MORE: The curious case of Miles Sanders: What to do about the Eagles running back, now and in the future | Jeff McLane

If you are a sentimentalist, you will not like the answer. A year apart at Penn State, Barkley and Sanders will enter this offseason in much the same straits, both a season away from free agency, neither yet with a contract extension in hand. And on both counts, Sanders’ in particular, their employers would be foolish to do anything greater than let them play out the string.

If that sounds harsh, it should. Because it is. In a world where contracts were awarded based on past production and loyalty, both Sanders and Barkley would be in line for healthy raises. But this is a world where the market sets the price points, and the running back market says the shake ain’t worth the bake.

What that means for Sanders’ future in Philadelphia is anybody’s guess. Even if he is not able to play through the broken hand he suffered against the Giants, he still has another year remaining on his contract, with a cap hit of just $1.7 million. The Eagles have plenty of big fish to fry this offseason.

Their quarterback is not a long-term solution. They barely have a linebacker with a recognizable name. They need at least one safety, at least one edge rusher, and maybe a big-bodied receiver who can help to re-establish the middle of the field. Running back? The Eagles have been making it work since Chip Kelly left town. Check the photographic evidence: LeGarrette Blount, Jay Ajayi, and Corey Clement were all participants in a Super Bowl parade.

Yet Sanders’ situation is one worth considering. Since the Eagles drafted him at No. 51 overall in 2019, the former Penn State star ranks fourth among NFL running backs with 5.1 yards per carry, 15th with 61 yards per game, and fifth with 16 runs of 20-plus yards (300 attempts). By all accounts, he has been a model citizen both on and off the field. It just feels icky to look at him and shrug and hope that he has stashed some of his $4.1 million in career earnings in a diversified portfolio.

At the same time, the NFL is a business, and this is the way the business needs to be played. As entertaining a player as Sanders has been, there’s an argument that the Eagles overdrafted him at No. 51 even before there’s an argument that they should give him a key to the bank.

Look at this year’s rushing leaders: Among the 15 players who rank ahead of Sanders are four who were drafted at least 15 spots lower than him in the two-plus years since he went off the board. They include the Patriots’ Damien Harris (No. 87 in 2019), Washington’s Antonio Gibson (No. 66 in 2020), the Jaguars’ James Robinson (undrafted in 2020), and and the 49ers’ Elijah Mitchell (No. 194 in 2021).

You don’t need to invest a lot of capital to replace a guy like Sanders. Heck, you don’t need to invest a lot of capital to replace the guy Sanders replaced at Penn State, or even the guy that guy was before he tore up his knee. In his first two seasons in the league, Barkley ranked sixth in the NFL in rushing yards. Of the five running backs who outgained him, three were drafted No. 35 (Derrick Henry), No. 45 (Nick Chubb), and No. 249 (Chris Carson) overall.

» READ MORE: What we learned from Eagles-Giants: Jalen Hurts offers a lesson on patience for us all

Look at this year’s rushing leaders and the story is the same. Five of the top six were drafted after pick 40. The sixth is a rookie who was drafted at No. 24.

It’s an interesting conundrum. On the one hand, Sanders is all of the things that would make him a sure-bet for a second contract in yesterday’s NFL. He is fun, marketable, dynamic — the kind of guy you want representing you on a billboard. On the other hand, any extension would have to make the kind of organizational sense that can feel to a player like a slap in the face.

Is Sanders cool with being Nyheim Hines and getting an extra $10 million-$12 million in cash with cap hits not exceeding $5 million-$6 million? If so, there might be a deal space. But the Eagles can’t come close to making him Alvin Kamara ($40 million in cash flow, with a couple of years of cap hits at $14-plus million).

Truth be told, it’s a crappy conversation to have. There’s a reason they call economics the dismal science. But business is business, and few things crystallize the running back business like the track records of those who came before.

Take Barkley, for instance. As good as he was in 2018 and 2019, the more relevant season to consider might be 2017, back when he and Sanders were both at Penn State. That year, Le’Veon Bell rushed for 1,291 yards at the age of 25. In the four seasons since, he has 1,199 yards at 3.3 yards-per carry. Just behind him was Melvin Gordon, who rushed for 1,105 yards on 284 carries. In the four seasons since, he has averaged 812 yards. And then there is Todd Gurley, who averaged 1,136 yards per season from the ages of 21 to 24 and is now out of the league at 27.

It feels awfully unfair to have a position that is both the game’s most punishing and its most replaceable. But the biz is the biz and the game is the game. The sensible path forward doesn’t leave much room for debate.