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NFL Player Profile

Will Miles Sanders receive a workhorse role?

by Ian Hartitz
Updated On: May 9, 2020, 2:25 pm ET

We’re in the thick of the NFL offseason and it’s officially time to start fantasy football prep. I’ll be answering the biggest questions heading into the 2020 season. Click here to read the series of questions answered so far.

The Eagles drafted Miles Sanders with the No. 53 overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft. The former stud Penn State RB was widely considered one of the more talented backs in the class thanks to both his productive collegiate career and gaudy athletic profile (Player Profiler):

  • Height: 5-foot-11
  • Weight: 211 pounds
  • 40-yard dash: 4.49 seconds (80th percentile among all RBs)
  • Speed Score: 103.8 (76th)
  • Burst Score: 123.2 (74th)
  • Agility Score: 11.08 (84th)
  • SPARQ-x score: 120.3 (76th)

Sanders more than met expectations as a rookie, racking up 1,327 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns despite splitting plenty of work with early-drown grinder Jordan Howard.

Now the backfield is seemingly the Sanders show after 1) Howard took his talents to Miami and 2) Philadelphia declined to draft a RB. Still, coach Doug Pederson has never made a habit of enabling a three-down back, and we have a limited sample size of Sanders in this true bell-cow role.

What follows is a breakdown on the Eagles' No. 1 RB and what we should expect in his second season.

Sanders is anyone's idea of a three-down RB

The idea of a workhorse back is someone that thrives as a rusher, receiver and blocker.

It took Sanders a few weeks to catch his stride on the ground, as he averaged 3.5 or fewer yards per carry in five of his first seven games. He appeared to truly breakthrough in Buffalo, when the rookie posted 3-74-1 rushing and 3-44-0 receiving lines in injury-shortened action.

The back we saw during the second half of the season possessed a gaudy combination of big-play ability and elusiveness (PFF and PlayerProfiler):

  • Yards after contact per attempt: 3.25 (No. 12 among RBs)
  • Evaded Tackles: 75 (No. 13)
  • Juke Rate: 32.8% (No. 5)
  • Yards created: 345 (No. 15)
  • Yards created per touch: 1.51 (No. 19)

Nobody will confuse Sanders with a scat back, as he's more than capable of racking up yardage straight through the teeth of the defense. Per Sharp Football Stats, Sanders was actually at his best when running straight up the middle.

Sharp

Obviously this is a bit more of an offensive line stat than an indictment of any runner, but we should expect Philly to again boast a more-than-solid offensive front. The only change is that 2019 first-round pick Andre Dillard will take over for 16-year veteran Jason Peters as Carson Wentz's blindside protector. Perennially possessing one of the league's best offensive lines, the Eagles again looks slated to function as an (at worst) above-average offense line.

And as good as Sanders was as a rusher, he was even more efficient as a receiver. Only Austin Ekeler (2.74 yards per route run), Dalvin Cook (1.93), James White (1.91), Christian McCaffrey (1.76) and Chris Thompson (1.71) averaged more yards per route than Sanders (1.61) in 2019. Only Kamara (8.26) has averaged more yards per target than Sanders (8.08) among 32 rookie RBs with at least 50 targets since 2000.

Sanders even spent a respectable 7.3% of his snaps in the slot or out wide. He shouldn't quite be mistaken with the likes of Ekeler or McCaffrey just yet, although the floor here is still high. Only McCaffrey (15), Ekeler (14), Leonard Fournette (13) and James White (13) had more games with at least three receptions than Sanders (12) in 2019.

Only four RBs were asked to pass block on over 100 snaps in 2019. Todd Gurley led the way ... with an average of 7.7 pass-block snaps per game. It's an important part of any complete RB, but perhaps this isn't a skill that should necessarily keep a talented back off the field for long.

Either way, it's safe to say this isn't anything we need to worry about when it comes to Sanders.

Helping matters for an even better encore is the potential for Wentz and this offense to really start humming in 2020.

This Eagles Offense could be better than ever

Wentz suffered the worst season of his career as a rookie in 2016. His top receivers were Jordan Matthews, Zach Ertz, Nelson Agholor and (throwback!) Dorial Green-Beckham.

Then 2017 came along, and Philly surrounded Wentz with new talent including Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith and rookie fourth-round speedster Mack Hollins. Three-WR sets thus consisted of Jeffery and either Smith or Hollins on the outside with Agholor in the slot. This resulted in a massive second-year leap for Wentz, who was a frontrunner in the MVP conversation until he suffered a torn ACL in Week 13.

The Eagles tried to run things back in 2018 by adding Mike Wallace to replace Smith, but both Wallace and Hollins would ultimately spend nearly the entire season on the injured reserve list. This problem again arose in 2019 when DeSean Jackson missed all but one (absolutely spectacular) game.

Now it's safe to say the Eagles have plenty of speed to go around:

The Eagles ranked just 12th in points per game in 2019. The potential for Wentz to thrive finally put everything together for 16 games would inevitably produce a fantasy-friendly role for his right-hand man, as it's easy to see how underneath areas of the field and rushing lanes alike can open up once an offense introduces a true downfield threat.

Treat Sanders as a fantasy RB1

The "elephant" in the room is Boston Scott, who performed admirably down the stretch and even put together 138 total yards and three scores against the Giants in Week 17 after Sanders was forced out of action early with an injury.

Still, it's not like Scott was doing anything to take Sanders off the field for any extended stretch of time. He was the offense's workhorse after Howard went down with injury:

  • Week 11: 11-38-0 rushing, 2-9-0 receiving, 85% snaps
  • Week 12: 12-63-0, 3-23-0, 85%
  • Week 13: 17-83-0, 5-22-1, 88%
  • Week 14: 15-45-0, 4-24-0, 57%
  • Week 15: 19-122-1, 6-50-1, 71%
  • Week 16: 20-79-1, 5-77-0, 81%
  • Week 17: 9-52-0, 3-(-)1-0, 31% (injured)
  • Wild Card: 14-69-0, 3-8-0, 73%

Overall, Sanders worked as the PPR RB8 from Weeks 11-17. He possesses big-play ability as both a rusher and receiver in addition to his aforementioned savagery as a pass blocker. Sanders has top-10 RB ability ... assuming the Eagles don't do anything too dramatic in the early rounds of the draft – which they didn't!

Still, it's just tough to believe that Pederson will break his career-long trend of embracing committee backfields. Yes, Sanders owns the top-three highest single-game snap rates from a RB under Pederson. Also yes, Scott was already starting to siphon away some pass-down work during the last month of the season.

Sanders *should* work as the Eagles' featured RB next season, but this will be a situation to monitor all the way through August in order to make sure Pederson doesn't get crazy with another committee. The likes of Carlos Hyde, Devonta Freeman and Lamar Miller linger as potential veterans that could feasibly steal a large portion of early-down work away from the Eagles' talented rising second-year back.

Sanders is presently going in the PPR RB13-14 range in season-long and best-ball drafts alike. I'm fine with taking the talented back higher and within the top-10 picks for now, but this current range could look rough if/when this offense introduces an early-down grinder to the equation. The Eagles truly had to look everywhere to find play-makers in their injury-ravened roster down the stretch in 2020, and we just haven't seen a ton of historical evidence that Pederson is willing to fully feed one RB for an entire season. This is a good idea to preserve the best years of a RB's career; it's just not always the greatest type of RB to invest a top-round selection in.

Ian Hartitz

All things NFL. Great day to be great. You can follow Ian on Twitter @Ihartitz.