For the second straight night, the Eagles got a player in the NFL draft they didn’t think they had a chance to get.
In Thursday’s first round, offensive tackle Andre Dillard, a player the Eagles had as one of the top 10 on their draft board, slid far enough for them to trade up three spots and grab.
- NFL draft: Eagles select Stanford wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside with No. 57 overall pick
- Eagles add two offensive skill position players in second round: Penn State RB Miles Sanders and Stanford WR J.J. Arcega-Whiteside
- Eagles draft Miles Sanders: What the experts are saying about the Penn State running back
On Friday, the same thing happened again. Penn State running back Miles Sanders, a player many draft analysts expected to go early in the second round and possibly even at the tail end of the first round, slid down to the Eagles, who gobbled him up with the first of their two second-round picks, the 53rd overall selection.
"Guess what, guys,'' a jubilant Eagles executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman said to reporters. "We got a running back. We draft running backs in Philadelphia.''
Sanders is the first running back that the Eagles have taken higher than the fourth round since 2009, when they drafted LeSean McCoy, also in the second round.
“We were patient, we let the board come to us,’’ Roseman said. "Every dog has his day with that.
"Understand we can’t do everything here as far as all of the need positions. It’s not what we went into the draft to do. That’s what we did in free agency. We had the flexibility here to just follow our board and draft the best guys.''
The Eagles’ fondness for Sanders, who rushed for 1,274 yards and nine touchdowns and caught 24 passes for the Nittany Lions last season after replacing NFL offensive rookie of the year Saquon Barkley, was one of the league’s worst-kept pre-draft secrets.
But with both of their second-round picks near the bottom of the round, and with no third-round pick available to use in any trade-up bargaining, it seemed extremely unlikely they would be able to land him.
“There’s just too much juice on him,’’ NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said last week. “There’s too much heat. There’s too many teams that like him. I think he’ll likely be off the board at that point in time.’’
But lo and behold, he wasn’t. Sanders was one of just two running backs taken in the first two rounds. Alabama’s Josh Jacobs went to the Oakland Raiders Thursday with the 24th pick in the first round.
Five more running backs were taken in Friday’s third round.
"Miles was a staff favorite,'' Roseman said. "A coaching staff favorite. A personnel staff favorite. A front-office favorite. He reminded us of some other players we’ve had around here.''
He’s not talking about Tony Hunt or Stanley Havili or Charles Scott. He’s talking about McCoy and Brian Westbrook, who are two of the best running backs in franchise history.
“This is a guy, we got together two weeks ago as a staff and put together some hypotheticals. We joked about Miles falling to us like he did today. I went to (running backs) coach (Duce) Staley’s office and I said, ‘Let’s get some good karma. Maybe Miles will fall.'’
The Eagles finished 28th in rushing (98.1 yards per game) and 30th in rush average (3.9 per carry) last season. They acquired Jordan Howard in a trade with Chicago last month. But Howard’s role is expected to largely be as a first- and second-down grinder, much like LeGarrette Blount two years ago, when the Eagles finished second in first-down rushing average (they fell to 25th last year).
The 5-10, 211-pound Sanders is the versatile, breakaway back the Eagles have lacked. They think he can be to their offense what Alvin Kamara is to the Saints’ and what Christian McCaffrey is to the Panthers'.
"Miles is a guy, he can play all three downs,'' Roseman said. "Jordan has better hands than advertised. But you have these guys that can do different things. Coach (Doug Pederson) is looking for guys that have different skill-sets so he can provide different looks to the defense.
"It’s a matchup league. That’s what we’re looking to provide our coaching staff with. Guys who can win one-on-one matchups.''
Sanders, a five-star recruit out of Pittsburgh, spent two frustrating years backing up Barkley at Penn State. But he kept his mouth shut, and when he finally got his opportunity last season, he ran with it.
“Once he got in there, he was productive,’’ said draft analyst Ben Fennell, who works with Jeremiah at NFL Network. “He has great patience. He has the vision in pro-style running schemes. He’s a slasher. He has breakaway juice, yet he’ll also play with power. He’ll lower his pads and fight for extra contact.’'
Sanders joins a crowded running back cast that includes, in addition to Howard, Wendell Smallwood, Corey Clement, and Josh Adams.
He’ll get an opportunity to play right away if he can prove he can hold on to the football and protect quarterback Carson Wentz.
Sanders had five fumbles last season for the Nittany Lions, four off of contact.
“He’s like a lot of guys who fight for extra yards,’’ Fennell said. “ None of his fumbles were in short-yardage situations. They all were down the field when he was trying to make defensive backs miss.’’
Roseman and vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas both said they aren’t overly concerned about either Sanders’ ball security or his ability to pass-protect.
“When Westbrook came out, those were the (same) concerns with him,'' Roseman said. "About his ability to pass-protect. And he ended up being one of the best pass-protecting backs in the league.
“And ball security was a concern with LeSean early in his career. We talked with Duce (about both issues). He had a chance to work him out. And he feels very confident that those are things that are not going to be a factor for him.’’
Sanders also gives the Eagles a dangerous weapon in the passing game, something they’ve lacked, particularly with Darren Sproles spending most of the last two seasons sidelined with injuries.