Philadelphia Eagles: Nick Sirianni should do wonders for Miles Sanders

(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

Just how good is Miles Sanders? Is the Philadelphia Eagles‘ lead rusher a top-25 running back? Top-15? Top-5?

That, my friends, is a really hard question to answer.

Selected with the 53rd overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft – a pick initially acquired in 2018’s Lamar Jackson trade – Sanders has the third-most rushing yards, the 12th-most receiving yards, and the seventh-most overall touchdowns of any non-quarterback in his class. He’s rushed for 100 yards in three of his 29 professional contests and has on five separate occasions recorded a run of 50 yards or more in a game.

But all yards are not created equal. No, for every highlight-reel run, two-touchdown showing, or prominent performance in the passing game, Sanders has turned in showings where he averaged less than three yards per touch and had incredibly ineffective showings masked by a single stats-altering run.

Is some of that discrepancy on Sanders? Most definitely. Sanders isn’t what you would call a grinder and will often turn in fruitless runs if a crease doesn’t materialize. But when you watch over the pride of Penn State’s tape over the past few seasons, it’s hard to fully blame him for his inconsistent yards per game, as he’s been seldom given the consistent snap count needed to produce at a consistently high level.

Fortunately, under new head coach Nick Sirianni, that might be about to change.

Nick Sirianni could finally give the Philadelphia Eagles a consistent run game.

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Doug Pederson hated to run the football.

Call it a logical side-effect of playing and then coaching quarterbacks for the first 44 years of his life, but Pederson’s Eagles averaged 433 rushing attempts versus 597 passing attempts per season for a not-particularly-good 42:58 run-to-pass ratio.

Even in the season where the Eagles rushed the ball more often than any other, unsurprisingly the team’s eventual Super Bowl-winning 2017 run, the team still threw the ball 91 more times than they ran it despite averaging the fourth-most yards-per-rush league-wide versus a middle-of-the-road 7.07 yards per passing attempt. And yet, even when the Eagles had a lead, Pederson would start to get away from what worked in 2017 and watched his team go from averaging the most time of possession of any team in the league to the ninth-worst mark league-wide in 2020.

Factor in Pederson’s vanilla play calling and unwillingness to implement the sort of next-level rushing attack Duce Staley must have been chomping at the bit to design, and it’s really no wonder Sanders ranked 21st in rushing attempts in 2019 and 21st again in rushing attempts in 2020.

Indianapolis, by contrast, didn’t have that problem. No, during Nick Sirianni’s tenure as Frank Reich‘s offensive coordinator, the Colts averaged 27.86 rushing attempts per game and had a running back record of at least 900 yards in each consecutive contest. Sirianni used his running back consistently in the passing game, shook up his offensive playcalling to keep opposing defensive coordinators guessing, and, most crucially of all, actually deployed his running backs strategically to optimize their individual strengths and mitigate their weaknesses.

Both Marlon Mack and Jonathan Taylor had 1,000-yard seasons under the one-two punch of Sirianni and Reich, and their rushing styles aren’t exactly 1:1.

If Sirianni can just bring that element of Reich’s offense over to the City of Brotherly Love, it’ll do wonders to not only make the team’s offense less predictable but finally unlock Miles Sanders’ potential in this a pivotal year for his overall development.

Take, for example, how the Colts used speedy North Carolina State rusher Nyheim Hines during his three-season tenure in Indianapolis. Initially pigeonholed by talent evaluators as Lance Zierlein as a return specialist, Hines found success as both a screen-specialist and an outright receiver for a trio of Colts offenses built around three very different quarterbacks. While 2021 draftee Kenneth Gainwell may seem like the logical analogue for Hines on this current iteration of the Eagles’ roster, Sanders has developed into one of the better backfield receivers in the NFL during his first two professional seasons – an aspect of his game that didn’t appear at Penn State – and could be just as effective in such a role.

Could you imagine just how potent a two-man RPO could be with Sanders and Jalen Hurts running the show? Both are exceptional runners, and Sanders’ versatility could keep him engaged post handoff as a viable outlet pass out of the backfield.

Really, the only aspect of Sanders’ game that is underwhelming is his pass blocking, but Howie Roseman preempted that issue by claiming Kerryon Johnson off of waivers, who just so happens to be one of the best blockers you’ll find with a number in the 30s.

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With a second-year quarterback and an incredibly inexperienced receiving corps featuring zero players over the age of 26, Nick Sirianni would be wise to build the Philadelphia Eagles’ offense around a heavy dose of the ground game. If that happens, don’t be too surprised if Miles Sanders finally surpasses 1,00 rushing yards in a single season and finally enters the conversation as one of the NFL’s premier do-it-all rushers. At 24-years-old, that would be one heck of an accomplishment.