Miles Sanders is an easy guy to dream on. For starters, he looks the part, with a thick lower body and compact center of gravity that seems tailor-made for a running back. He acts the part, too -- or, at least, he did in his only season as a Division I starter, when he succeeded Saquon Barkley at Penn State and rattled off 1,274 yards and a 5.8 yards-per-carry average on 220 attempts (numbers that weren’t all that different from the 217 attempts, 1,271 yards and 5.9 average that Barkley produced the year before). Most notable, however, is the part that Sanders seems to be carving out for himself in Doug Pederson’s offense as the Eagles prepare to take the field for the preseason opener on Thursday night.
On Tuesday, in the Eagles’ final full practice before they take the field against the Tennessee Titans, Sanders enjoyed another morning of steady work, the latest installment of what appears to be a steadily increasing share of the reps with the first unit. Jordan Howard still got his touches. Darren Sproles still has his packages. But as difficult as it is to judge running backs in training camp, anybody who has spent part of the last week watching the Eagles at the NovaCare Complex will tell you the same thing: No. 26 is the guy you notice.
This really doesn’t qualify as news, of course. The coaching staff has said from the beginning that the plan was to gradually increase Sanders’ workload between the start of camp and the first preseason game. So it would be a mistake to overstate the implications of the Eagles’ simply sticking to what they said they would do. At the same time, given the history of rookie running backs in the NFL, and the fact that Sanders has apparently overcome the hamstring injury that sidelined him during OTAs, the fact that he remains on time with his progression should count as a notable development.
“He’s really just kind of started being able to get out there and be involved in the huddle and be part of the play call, be able to decipher what the defense is doing, react to it,” offensive coordinator Mike Groh said. “We think that he’s making good progress.”
There’s damning with faint praise, and then there’s its transverse. The fact that Sanders is making any progress at all puts him ahead of the curve. There are few positions in the NFL where a player’s brand recognition can suffer as fast as at running back. This is in large part because the replacement cost is lower than at any other position. Know your assignment, hang on to the football, work hard, and stay healthy -- those are your primary responsibilities. Everything else is secondary. Hitting the right hole, exploding out of your cut, seeing your lanes, finishing your runs -- all of that matters only after you’ve established that you aren’t a liability. Sanders himself gave a nod to it on Tuesday when talking about the difference between pass protection in college and pass protection in the NFL.
“Most linebackers don’t try to bull rush it all the time, they try to hit you with a move,” he said.
You don’t get fantasy points for blitz pickups, but you won’t get many carries without them.
The Eagles were very much at the vanguard of teams who understood the rapidly diminishing value of investing in the running back position. When they selected Sanders out of Penn State at No. 53 overall this season, it was the first time since 2009 that they’d taken a running back with one of the first 130 picks in the draft. The last guy’s name was LeSean McCoy. It worked out.
But it often doesn’t, and the volatility at the position was one of the main reasons to be skeptical of the notion that Sanders could waltz into Doug Pederson’s offense and establish himself as even a 12-to-15-touch-a-game starter. Of the 26 running backs drafted in the second round over the 10 drafts before this year, only seven rushed for more than 700 yards as rookies, five rushed for 800-plus, four for 900-plus, and two for 1,000-plus. Of that group, the median rookie performance was 143 attempts and 581 yards. The median for total yards from scrimmage was 704. While there were some runaway successes in that group -- Le’Veon Bell, McCoy, Giovani Bernard -- there were also some epic busts, many of whom spent their first preseasons garnering the same sorts of headlines as Sanders. Montee Ball, Bishop Sankey, and Daniel Thomas, please report to the nearest customer-service counter.
So, yeah, it is notable that Sanders is healthy and increasing his role in the offense with a month to go before Week 1. That doesn’t mean you should pencil him in for 15-20 carries a game. The Eagles have been one of the most egalitarian teams in the league with its ball distribution over the last couple of seasons, deploying a three- or even four-headed rotation whose rhyme and reason is not always easy to decipher. Along with the Dolphins, Lions and Packers, they are among only four teams in the NFL that have not had a running back carry the ball at least 174 times in either of the last two years, with LeGarrette Blount’s 173 carries in 2017 the closest they’ve come to relying upon a classic first- and second-down back. Last year, Josh Adams led the team with 120 carries, a total that 39 other NFL running backs eclipsed. On Tuesday, Pederson offered a telling reminder of how fast a rookie runner’s fortunes can change when asked what he’ll be looking for out of Sanders on Thursday.
“You know, obviously, hanging onto the football when he’s tackled,” the Eagles coach said.