As star-level, featured running backs go in the NFL, Miles Sanders tends toward understatement.
The last homegrown one of those we had around here, LeSean McCoy, was a lot more brash -- a reporter could be trudging past McCoy’s locker, headed elsewhere, and Shady would stop him or her, demand to know the reporter’s appraisal of McCoy’s standing in the league, and then passionately argue that it was too low. He might have had a chart from some website ready on his phone, to buttress his argument. Never mind that you were just trying to get to the row of stalls where the linebackers reside.
Sanders, meanwhile, has to be prodded to tell you what he thinks of himself. But since you asked, he thinks he’s pretty good -- very capable of handling the Eagles’ high expectations for his second NFL season.
“Definitely thought I could have been in the conversation for rookie of the year,” Sanders told reporters Sunday. “That just puts a bigger chip on my shoulder.”
Mind you, he didn’t just blurt this out. The question was, “Are you disappointed that you weren’t rookie of the year?” Sanders set single-season Eagles rookie records for scrimmage yards (1,327, breaking DeSean Jackson’s mark of 1,008 set in 2008) and rushing yards (818, breaking McCoy’s record of 637, in 2009).
" When you break records [of] guys like DeSean Jackson and Shady, I think that’s pretty big,” Sanders said. “That’s a big accomplishment.”
Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray ran away with the offensive rookie award, getting 26 ½ of the 50 votes. Raiders running back Josh Jacobs got 13 votes, Titans receiver A.J. Brown got 9 ½. The other vote went to Sanders.
Murray, Jacobs, and Brown were standouts from Week 1, Murray at the game’s most glamorous position. It’s hard to argue with a guy who looks like a franchise QB getting the award.
Sanders managed just 53 yards on 21 carries in the Eagles’ first two games, along with three catches for 12 yards. He evolved into a difference-maker, especially after Jordan Howard suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in leading the team past his former Chicago Bears teammates on Nov. 3.
Comparing Sanders with Jacobs isn’t outlandish, when you factor in opportunity. Sanders never got more than 13 carries in a game before rushing 17 times for 83 yards in the Week 13 loss at Miami. Starting that week, he averaged 16 carries for 76.2 yards over the final five games -- 4.76 yards per carry. Jacobs averaged 4.8 for the Raiders (242 carries, 1,150 yards) in his 13 games.
Even though Jacobs missed three games with injury, and Sanders played in all 16, Jacobs amassed 63 more carries. Sanders did far more as a receiver, with 50 catches for 509 yards to Jacobs’ 20 catches for 106 yards. Sanders scored six touchdowns -- three rushing, three receiving. All of Jacobs’ seven TDs came on the ground.
Sanders said his 65-yard rushing touchdown at Buffalo on Oct. 27 was a catalyst that helped get him ready for his bigger role down the stretch last year.
“Toward the end of the season, probably after that Bills game, going on to the last four games, I think that’s when I started feeling more comfortable. … I had a good grasp of the playbook and the system and how everything was run, and I was just able to go out there and play,” he said. “I think that’s when everything started going smoothly.”
Some fans thought the Eagles would go after a big-name complement to Sanders this offseason -- maybe even McCoy, who finally signed last week with Tampa Bay. That definitely wasn’t their focus, though they could still bring in a veteran for depth and to help in short-yardage situations. Sanders and Boston Scott are clearly No. 1 and No. 2, even though they combined for just 314 touches last year, and neither player is imposing physically.
“I didn’t really care if anybody was coming in or not,” Sanders said, but he added that if there is a signing, he’ll adjust.
“I trust Howie [Roseman, the general manager] and their process of bringing people in, for what’s best for the team. They announced that I’m the guy this year, but having any type of veteran running back in here would be a blessing, too, for me to pick their brain. … I’m always up to learn,” he said.
“I don’t see Miles as a guy that you have to monitor his touches … I think you put him in and let him go,” running backs coach and assistant head coach Duce Staley said recently. “I don’t think you have to be careful with him, because it’s hard to get him. I think you have to be careful with guys that can’t make people miss. If you put a big workload on those type of guys, this is a violent league, and injuries, we know, can happen at any time.
“But if you’ve got a guy who can make people miss and is kind of special like Miles, the injury risk goes down a little bit. The percentage goes down. I think he can go out there and he can handle that part of it. He showed last year. He flashed last year.”
Sanders, listed at 5-foot-11, 211 pounds, was asked what he focused on this offseason, what he thinks he can do better.
“Honestly, I just wanted to get stronger, upper body and lower body-wise. … I want to break more tackles, show a little more on the ground. Watching film [from] last year, I probably left 200 or 300 yards on the ground. I could have had a 1,000-yard season,” he said.
The Eagles brought back linebacker Nathan Gerry from the COVID-19 restricted list Sunday, leaving right tackle Lane Johnson and offensive lineman Jordan Mailata as their only players still on the list.