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NFL Draft

Can Miles Sanders Be A Bell Cow In 2020?

  • The Draft Network
  • May 16, 2020
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The last feature running back to tote the rock in Philadelphia was LeSean McCoy, who carried the ball 312 times in 2014 for 1,319 yards. 

Considered a mainstay of the Eagles offense at the time, coach Chip Kelly shocked the NFL when he traded McCoy to Buffalo for linebacker Kiko Alonso. McCoy left as the all-time leading rusher for the Eagles and remains so to this day after recording 6,792 yards across six short seasons in Philadelphia.

McCoy's departure was quickly followed by Kelly's, as his gambit to move on from several offensive stars led to a steep dropoff in offensive efficiency. When Doug Pederson took over, one of the few coaches he retained was running backs coach Duce Staley, but he fundamentally changed the theory in the running back room by immediately installing a committee approach.

In 2016, Ryan Mathews was the lead rusher with 155 carries, and Darren Sproles followed closely behind with 94. LeGarrette Blount had 173 carries in 2017 but was replaced as the 1A ball carrier by Jay Ajayi, who was acquired at the trade deadline and had 70 carries over seven weeks. In 2018, Josh Adams paced the most sparse depth chart yet with 120 carries to Wendell Smallwood's 87 and Corey Clement's 68.

Nobody had more rushing yards under Pederson than Blount's 766 in 2017 until second-round rookie Miles Sanders came along in 2019. 

Sanders began the year splitting time with Jordan Howard and had lost the 1A spot by the middle of the season as Howard's more veteran, physical running style led to less negative plays than Sanders' yet unmeasured and jumpy approach. After the bye week, Howard was lost for the remainder of the season with a lingering stinger injury, and Sanders took over the backfield.

It was perhaps the most dominant stretch of play for a single running back under Pederson's tenure, matched only by Blount's early weeks of 2017. From Weeks 9-16, Sanders averaged 15 carries a game for 4.5 yards a pop, five targets a game at seven yards each and scored four total touchdowns — two through the air and two on the ground. As the Eagles' wide receiver room suffered injury after injury and the speed of the replacement weapons fell short of the standard, Sanders was targeted as a big-play receiving threat; 20 of his 50 receptions came in the last four weeks of competitive football in 2019.

Sanders' rookie season was so explosive, he put himself in rarefied air.

Now, Sanders belongs to two groups. One, an extremely productive and successful upper echelon of dual-threat backs. And the second was mentioned above: a group of Pederson’s running backs that always seem to end up in a time share.

The sneaky reality is that, even as Sanders was wicked productive in the back half of 2019, he still saw his snap counts go down as Boston Scott emerged into relevancy and created some explosive plays of his own, both as a runner and a pass-catcher. Scott and Sanders joined Christian McCaffrey and Austin Ekeler as the only four players to produce 150 yards both as a runner and receiver in the final four games of the season.

The Eagles again seem determined to go running back by committee, even though they didn't add a young player behind Sanders in the 2020 draft. Philadelphia has been linked to almost every veteran running back on the market, including Carlos Hyde and Devonta Freeman. Also, circled as a target? The franchise record-holder for career rushing yards: LeSean McCoy.

The scary part is that we didn't even see the ceiling on Sanders last year. He is a creator who likes to work outside of structure and beat space defenders with his athletic ability. When asked to read between the tackles, Sanders frequently left yardage on the field, trying to hit a home run when a double was available to him.

There's a chance the Eagles bring in a veteran to help teach Sanders the ropes as he continues to grow, spelling him for just another year before he takes over the backfield. There's a chance they always want a veteran, no matter how good of a running back Sanders ends up. His ceiling is through the roof, but the opportunity will be low for him in Philadelphia, and he'll need to make quick strides to more veteran plays if he's gonna end up a bell cow back.

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