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Miles Sanders, NFL Draft

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Realistic Expectations for Eagles Rookie Running back Miles Sanders

Realistic Expectations for Eagles Rookie Running back Miles Sanders

After the Philadelphia Eagles boasted an underwhelming rushing offense in 2018, paced by undrafted free agent running back Josh Adams with a whopping 511 yards and 3 touchdowns on 120 carries (4.3 yards per carry), the team has experienced a massive remodel of the backfield this off season.

With the departure of often injured Jay Ajayi and long time fan favorite Darren Sproles (Maybe? Who knows about that one.), the first big addition took place when the Eagles acquired former Chicago Bears pro bowl running back Jordan Howard on March 28th.

In three seasons with the Bears, Howard had gained 3,370 yards and 24 rushing touchdowns. Not bad numbers for a player who was exchanged for just a 2020 sixth round selection. That wasn’t it for the running back additions however.

Absent from Howard’s skill set is any ability to stretch the defense laterally or in the passing game. A one cut and churn back, Howard does not possess any particular flash or dynamic element to an NFL offense. What he does bring is dependability. He brings a physicality to consistently keep the offense ahead of the change, without much worry for negative yardage.

In order to capture that dynamic element to their backfield, the Eagles then turned their eyes to the 2019 NFL Draft, where they selected former Penn State running back Miles Sanders with the 51st overall selection in the second round.

After serving as the backup to New York Giants all pro running back Saquon Barkley his first two seasons in Happy Valley, Sanders finally got his time to shine as the primary ball carrier in 2018. He proceeded to post 1,274 yards and 9 touchdowns on only 220 carries (5.8 yards per carry). Impressive numbers for just his first season as the starting running back for the Nittany Lions, leading to his early entrance into the 2019 NFL Draft with a year of eligibility remaining.

Sanders followed up his breakout junior campaign, with a solid showing at the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine. In Indianapolis, Sanders posted among the top overall running back performances at the event after recording a 4.49 forty yard dash, twenty reps on the bench, 36 inch vertical jump, 10’2: broad jump and overall outstanding agility testing (6.89 3 cone and 4.19 twenty yard shuttle). Aside from those numbers, Miles Sanders looked smooth in on field drills, demonstrating his overall roundedness/smoothness as a ball carrier.

After being the second running back off the board, after the Oakland Raiders selected Alabama’s Josh Jacobs with the 24th selection, expectations are sky high for Sanders even in year one. Just how high should those expectations be though? And what type of production will that mean in year one? To find this answer, we dive into a little bit of Philadelphia Eagles draft history for this running back’s year one expectations.

Our journey takes us back all the way to the year 1980, where there have been fourteen running backs selected in the first one-hundred overall selections, of their respective drafts, by the Philadelphia Eagles. For a nice sample size to determine first year expectations, let’s dive into the numbers and figure out what a typical Eagles rookie running back has accomplished throughout the team’s history, at least in their first season with the team.

PlayerCarriesRushing YardsRushing TDReceptionsReceiving YardsReceiving TD
LeSean McCoy (2009)1556374403080
Tony Hunt (2007)10161000
Ryan Moats (2005)552783470
Brian Westbrook (2002)4619309860
Duce Staley (1997)72902220
Charlie Garner (1994)10939938740
Siran Stacy (1992)000000
Tony Brooks (1992)000000
Robert Drummond (1989)321270171801
Keith Byars (1986)177577111440
Anthony Toney (1986)692851131770
Michael Haddix (1983)912202232540
Michael Williams (1983)1033850171420
Perry Harrington (1980)3216613240

 

Of those fourteen runners, there have been some standout performers that include LeSean McCoy, Duce Staley, Brian Westbrook and Charlie Garner. The list is not all sunshine and rainbows however. For every big hit, there are the Ryan Moats, Siran Stacy and Michael Haddix of the world to temper expectations.

For all you mathematicians out there, that leaves us with an average of 236.57 yards and 1.14 rushing touchdowns on 63.29 carries (3.74 yards per carry). That is… well not great folks. To add to the mediocrity, the passing numbers were just as bad. There, Eagles rookie runners are averaging a pedestrian 10.5 receptions for 94.14 yards and .07 touchdowns.

Here is a statistic for you… of all fourteen running backs who were selected among the first one hundred selections in their respective drafts over the last forty years, ONE running back has scored a receiving touchdown…. ONE SINGLE RECEIVING TOUCHDOWN! And who accomplished that feet? Surely it had to be Brian Westbrook right? Or maybe Shady? Nope, it was Robert Drummond. Who?

Of those fourteen high selections over the last forty years, we are looking at zero thousand yard seasons. We are looking at no runner recording more than four touchdowns. No running back has come close to 200 carries. Even the best running backs on this list were not able to put together anything close to what the average fan would consider a dominant rookie season.

Keith Byars had relative success comparative to the list as a whole, posting nearly six hundred yards. Charlie Gardner was only able to average 3.66 yards per carry. That’s no bueno. Duce Staley and Brian Westbrook had very good overall careers but even they were barely able to see the field, providing any type of significant impact. Not off to a good start here my friends.

I’m just going to skip over guys like Siran Stacy and Tony Brooks, who were unable to record a statistic offensively in their careers. Players like Perry Harrington, Tony Hunt and Ryan Moats were not able to do much more. Again, not good.

As you (the reader) can see, history is not on Miles Sanders side.

Recent memory is a little better for the Eagles however. Of the fourteen runners, the most recent selection outside of Sanders, LeSean McCoy was able to have the most successful rookie season overall. This first year production would of course be followed up by a fantastic overall career up until this point.

With a team littered with a solid offensive line and talent around the running back position, with players like Alshon Jeffery, Zach Ertz and Desean Jackson, there is an opportunity for a player like Miles Sanders to capitalize off of a lack of attention. But just how many carries and reception opportunities will Sanders demand while sharing the backfield with a proven commodity like Jordan Howard? That will present the biggest indicator of production for Sanders early in his career.

Now let’s consider the skills that Miles Sanders brings to the table, and more importantly, how he fits. Sanders demonstrates more than a few instances of notable contact balance on film, and a clear cut ability (no pun intended) to stick his foot in the ground without losing much speed.

Here both aspects of Sanders’ game is on clear display. He quickly diagnosis the weak point in the defense, accelerating quickly to daylight, demonstrating solid early vision. There Sanders finds his first instance of contact on the rep. He demonstrates solid contact balance, being able to withstand the hit and keeping his feet underneath him. Speed is clearly on display once Sanders hits the crease. A well balanced runner, Sanders has several elements that make him an attractive piece in a heavy zone based running scheme.

Perhaps the biggest question for Sanders during the draft process is just how much he would be able to affect the passing game. An untapped part of his game, Sanders recorded just 24 reception for 139 yards, That is just an average of 5.8 yards per reception, without a single touchdown catch. Throughout the draft process, Sanders flashed the ability in workouts to be much more of a factor as a receiver than utilized on the collegiate level.

In this clip, Sanders shows an ability to accelerate out of his break without much deceleration in speed. He is able to complete the rep by showing late hands, snagging a potential difficult ball over his shoulder towards the sideline. The skill set is there for Sanders to be an asset in the passing game.

But as a blocker? That’s a different story. Sanders struggled mightily during his time at Penn State as a pass protector. Showing a passive approach and inability to anchor, Sanders gives up far too much ground, causing some extreme leverage issues.

These pass protection issues cause the most hesitancy in projection for Sanders. He is not a guy currently that you are going to want on the field on third downs or passing situations to a large degree. He projects much more favorably as a change of pace to Howard’s power style.

So who takes over the third down role now that Sproles’ future is in uncertainty? Corey Clement I guess? Mehhh I don’t know folks. So that leaves the main ball carrier duties to be split between Howard and Sanders. So what’s the split of carries? 75-25? 60-40? 50-50?

Howard has presented himself as a runner who gets better and better the more carries he is given. He has demonstrated the ability to wear down defenses and churn out first downs. That leads me to believe that he is going to be the majority ball carrier. So let’s talk final projections for Sanders.

I like Miles Sanders as a player. He has the ability to stress the defense laterally, setting up great opportunities as a one cut runner. Upon contact, Sanders has adequate contact balance to present some second effort run opportunities. He has some developing traits in the passing game but is a far ways away from being a consistent factor.

Final 2019 Statistics Prediction for Miles Sanders:

-540 rushing yards on 120 carries (4.5 yards per carry), and 5 rushing touchdowns

-25 receptions for 215 yards (8.6 yards per reception) and 1 touchdown

 

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