Miles Sanders can be the Philadelphia Eagles’ Christian McCaffrey.
‘I mean Sanders couldn’t even start at Penn State, he’s at best the third-best running back in the NFC East, nevermind the NFL.’
As an Eagles fan, I’m sure you’ve seen this sort of critique from a New York, Dallas, or maybe even Washington fan – if you can believe it – and it never, ever gets old.
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Only here’s the thing: Sanders was drafted by the Eagles to be a McCaffrey-style player.
As you probably know, Doug Pederson got his coaching start under the watchful eye of Andy Reid, joining his former head coach’s staff initially as an offensive quality control coach in 2009 before eventually elevating to the Kansas City Cheifs’ offensive coordinator from 2013-15. While there are a slew of signifiers that make easily identify a Reid-adjacent offensive scheme, most operate best when they have a do-it-all running back under cente… in the shotgun.
From Brian Westbrook to LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles, Kareem Hunt, and eventually Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Reid more so than almost any play-caller in the NFL loves to utilize his running backs all over the field, running between the tackles, on outside zones, and most importantly of all, as a receiver out of the backfield.
Now granted, we aren’t talking a Joe Philbin-level commitment to replacing the running game with short passing routes but there’s a reason why each of those players (save CEH of course) have 50-plus catch seasons under Reid’s watch.
Kick the Reid coaching tree out a little further and you’ll see a handful of other teams built around a receiving back, like Tarik Cohen in Chicago, Antonio Gibson in Washington, McCoy/Devin Singletary in Buffalo, J.K. Dobbins in Baltimore, and yes, even McCaffrey, who played 44 of his 48 professional games under ex-Eagles defensive coordinator Ron Rivera.
So in theory, a capable receiver out of the backfield should be considered a borderline necessity to run the Eagles’offense – too bad the team really hasn’t had that guy since Pederson took over the reins from Chip Kelly (and Pat Shurmur) in 2016.
Okay, technically that isn’t true, Darren Sproles has been an Eagle since 2014 and he’s one of the better offensive weapons in NFL history but he really hadn’t looked like it since 2016, as his final three seasons were marred by injuries and false retirements.
For whatever reason, Howie Roseman has mostly forgone investing in a premier do-it-all slasher in favor of cheaper, more readily available one-cut backs who can truck for four yards in a cloud of dust between the tackles.
And before landing Sanders, 2019 looked like more of the same.
After letting LeGarrette Blount walk a Super Bowl champion in 2018 and losing Jay Ajayi a few months later, the Eagles traded a future pick to acquire Jordan Howard from Matt Nagy and the Bears to compete with Josh Adams for a staring role as the Eagles new-old-look lead back. Howard, one of the more underappreciated backs in the NFL, is an okay pass catcher and a solid pass blocker, but his best damage comes between the tackles, occasionally even when deployed from single back formations under center. He may have only averaged 1.53 catches-per-game over his three-year tenure with the Bears, but that’s more than Blount, Ajayi, and even 2018’s leading rusher, Josh Adams, so it wasn’t like the Eagles were sacrificing an aspect of their offense turning the keys over to Howard.
However, in Sanders, the Eagles found oh so much more.
In 16 games of action with 11 starts, Sanders’ 229 touches for 1,327 all-purpose yards and six touchdowns. He led the team in rushing yards at 818 – the most by an Eagles’ back since McCoy in 2014 – finished out the season third in receiving behind only Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert, and even found limited success moonlighting as a slot receiver kicked out wide – a trick the team will certainly deploy more frequently in 2020 and beyond. Sanders also found success as a return man, returning 14 kicks for 314 yards with a long of 67 – a trick the team will certainly not deploy more frequently in 2020 and beyond
Are those McCaffrey numbers? No, not quite, but then again, McCaffrey wasn’t McCaffrey during his rookie season either.
As friend of the blog Thomas R. Petersen pointed out on his must-follow Twitter account, Sanders and McCaffrey had remarkably similar rookie seasons in 2017 and 2019 respectably, with the former nearly doubling his Carolina counterpart’s rushing yards. If Sanders receivers a sophomore bump like McCaffrey did this fall, roughly 130 total touches give or take, there’s no reason he couldn’t surpass 2,000 all-purpose yards with ease.
Barring the addition of a veteran rushing complement, an outcome Doug Pederson effectively discouraged earlier this month; Miles Sanders is going to be the Philadelphia Eagles’ lead back this fall, with only change-of-pace scatback Boston Scott and ole reliable Corey Clement to serve as complementary rushers. That means for all intents and purposes, the Eagles’ rushing attack is only going to be as good as their lead back, for better or worse. Fortunately, the Eagles have a darn good running back with plus hands and an insatiable desire to get better – so I think they’ll be just fine.