Training camp is only a week-and-a-half old, but rookie running back Miles Sanders already is drawing rave reviews from many very-impressed Eagles veterans.
“You can tell when some people have it or don’t have it," defensive end Brandon Graham said. “This boy’s got it.
“The way he bursts through the line, he’s going to be all right. I do believe he’s going to have a big year."
Jason Kelce, the Eagles’ All-Pro center, completely agrees.
“He’s an incredible athlete," Kelce said. “He moves real well. He has great agility, speed and vision. He understands angles and body movement."
"He’s an exciting player," quarterback Carson Wentz said.
After finishing a disappointing 28th in rushing (98.1 yards per game) and 30th in rush average (just 3.9 yards per carry) last season, the Eagles knew they had to upgrade the running back position in the offseason.
In late March, they acquired Jordan Howard, who had rushed for more than 3,300 yards in his first three NFL seasons with the Bears, for a conditional sixth-round pick.
A month later, Sanders fell into their laps 21 picks into the second round of the draft.
“We have a good stable [of backs]," Kelce said of an improved unit that also includes 36-year-old Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood, Corey Clement and Josh Adams. Adams led the team in rushing last year as an undrafted rookie.
“I think when you look at us two years ago when we won the Super Bowl, we had a really balanced backfield," Kelce said. "We had guys that were good at what they did, good at what they were asked to do.
“That’s one of the reasons that we had the success we had that year. We had guys who the coaches utilized what their strengths were."
How head coach Doug Pederson specifically will utilize Howard and Sanders and the two or three other running backs that wind up on the season-opening roster has yet to be determined.
The coaches will use the rest of training camp and the preseason to gauge Sanders’ rookie readiness for a significant role in the offense, particularly his ability to protect Wentz from enemy blitzers.
Howard’s primary role is expected to be much the same as LeGarrette Blount’s two years ago: first-down back.
Two years ago, with Blount as the team’s primary first-down back, the Eagles finished second in first-down rush average (4.72 yards per carry). Blount and Jay Ajayi averaged a collective 5.15 yards per carry on first down.
Last year, the Eagles slipped to 25th in first-down rushing (4.14). Adams, Clement and Smallwood averaged a collective 4.3 yards per carry on first down.
As a rookie in 2016, the 6-0, 224-pound Howard led the NFL in first-down rushing, averaging 5.7 yards per carry. Sixty-five percent of his 1,313 rushing yards that season came on first down.
His first-down production has slipped the last two years, to 4.3 yards per carry in 2017 and just 3.7 last year. But the Eagles have attributed much of that slippage to the Bears’ offensive line. They feel Howard will be a much more effective first-down runner behind the Eagles’ offensive line, which includes four Pro Bowlers.
Like Blount, Howard isn’t much of a pass-catcher. But they’ve got Sanders, Sproles and probably Clement, who is coming off a knee injury, to handle that.
“Howard is an incredible all-around back," Kelce said. “You see the vision. He understands what’s happening [when he has the ball in his hands]. He has a knack for hitting the play where it should be hit.
“In Sanders, you have a guy who can run the whole gambit of plays. Be [a receiver] out of the backfield. He’s a really, really dynamic athlete.
“We’re very fortunate across the board. We have pieces to be successful. Now it’s just putting it all together, coming together, so that everybody is on the same page."
» READ MORE: Miles Sanders’ journey from Pittsburgh to the Eagles
Sanders caught just 24 passes last season at Penn State, but has excellent hands and could give the Eagles the kind of versatile run-catch weapon they haven’t had since LeSean McCoy was shipped to Buffalo by Chip Kelly after the 2014 season, and before that, Brian Westbrook.
“You saw at Penn State what he could do as a runner," Wentz said. “But seeing the versatility that he presents is what excites me. [He can] catch the ball out of the backfield. [You can] split him out into some empty sets and see what he can do out there.
“I’ve seen stuff that I like so far, and I look forward to continuing to develop that aspect with him."
Wentz and Sanders connected on a pass down the field the other day in practice during 11-on-11 work against the Eagles’ No. 1 defense that could be a preview of things to come.
“He’s made some plays in the passing game down the field," offensive coordinator Mike Groh said. “I know it was (defensive end) Vinny (Curry) peeling out on him on the one. But it was still an over-the-shoulder throw and catch. He made a terrific play."
The one thing that’s been missing from the Eagles’ passing game the last two years has been a legitimate pass-catching running back.
Sproles has been one of the league’s top pass-catching running backs during his career. But he’s been hurt most of the last two years, missing 23 of the team’s 32 regular-season games.
He re-signed with the Eagles right before the start of training camp last month, but if Sanders is as good as the Eagles hope, Sproles’ role in the offense probably will be limited.
Smallwood has led Eagles running backs in receptions each of the last two years. But he had just 28 catches last year and 13 the previous year.
In five seasons, from 2004 to 2008, Brian Westbrook averaged 71 receptions, 28 receiving first downs and five receiving touchdowns per season. The last three years, the Eagles’ entire running back group has averaged 69 catches, 29 receiving first downs and four receiving TDs.