All it takes is a dark visor, kids.
Miles Sanders threw on the shades for the Philadelphia Eagles' Week 15 matchup with the Washington Redskins, and immediately had his best game as a pro: 19 carries (a career-high), 122 rushing yards (a career-high) and a touchdown; on six targets he had six receptions (career-highs) for 50 receiving yards and another touchdown.
The receiving touchdown, if you missed it, went a little like this:
That's Sanders' 12th reception of 10-plus yards this year, and on only 42 catches, we have got a receiving threat with unbelievable explosiveness. It was the story on Sanders coming out of Penn State: the athletic ability illustrated the ceiling. Accordingly, you just wanted to get him touches in space. When the Eagles selected Sanders in the second round of the 2019 draft, off the board only after Alabama running back Josh Jacobs among players at his position, analysts were excited for his role in a spread-y Doug Pederson offense.
But Sanders struggled with vision and decision-making at times as a collegiate athlete and still does as an NFL player. In the early weeks of the season, Sanders lost playing time and touches to trade acquisition Jordan Howard after averaging 11 carries from Weeks 1-4. Sanders saw about five carries per game in Weeks 5-8. His role as the scatback pass-catcher grew, and he became more active in the return game.
It seemed bad — it kind of was. Sanders was losing a hold on the primary spot in the backfield, leaving yards on the bone with his shaky vision. But the Eagles still got the ball in Sanders' hands and let his athleticism do the talking. He was still contributing to the team.
Jordan Howard then went down with a "stinger” that has prevented him from practicing for the last six weeks. And in the vacuum, Sanders has stepped up in a big way. He's remained active in the passing game, even snagging increased target shares as Philadelphia’s wide receivers have gone down with further injuries.
Sanders received the lion's share of the carries — 14 attempts per game over the last four weeks — and improved on an early-season 3.57 yards per carry, now hitting 4.4 yards on every tote. His decision-making has improved as the Eagles have settled on concepts that are best for him: power-blocking plays that give him an easy read and light boxes that maximize his elusiveness in space.
Suddenly, after settling into a decent but unspectacular rookie season, Sanders has exploded into relevancy as one of the more dangerous runners in the game.
With his 172 yards on the day, Sanders officially has set the Eagles record for rookie scrimmage yards (1,150) with two games left on the schedule — DeSean Jackson previously held it with 1,008. Sanders is on pace to beat the all-purpose Eagles record as well, set by Herman Hunter in 1985 -- and among rookies in 2019, nobody has more all-purpose yards/game than Sanders.
Sanders' 2019 season has a decent chance to end up a top-10 year in Eagles' history, in terms of all-purpose yards, and a top-20 season in terms of scrimmage yards if his usage stays hot as Howard rehabs. Sanders was always projected as a developmental player, but it's important to note that not all developmental players are created equal.
A one-year starter at Penn State, Sanders demonstrated clear NFL ability, but the inconsistency was going to haunt him early. He was projected to be a better Year-3 player than he was going to be in Year 1.
That is still likely to be the case.
Sanders' in-season development is somewhat the result of circumstances dictating his increased touches. It foreshadows further growth in the Eagles' offense and improved play that will lead to a year's worth of bell cow touches, deep targets and the occasional kickoff return.
In a 2019 class that has generally disappointed at the early picks of the skill positions, Sanders is perhaps the most exciting rookie on any given touch. With Howard looking at free agency and Darren Sproles approaching retirement, Sanders also has one of the most interesting long-term outlooks, and he will enter only his third year of starting in 2020.
For now, Sanders is a key engine in an Eagles' offense bereft of receiving threats, scrambling for a last-second playoff surge in the NFC East. But for the future, few backs have as bright an outlook at Sanders, who simply cannot stop getting better. The next in a line of successful dual-threat backs in Philadelphia seems installed for good.