Eagles

Are 2019 Eagles better or worse at running back?

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Are 2019 Eagles better or worse at running back?

The Eagles replaced their oft-injured one-two punch in the backfield, but will a brand new running back tandem prove to be better or worse in 2019?

Key additions: Jordan Howard (trade, Bears), Miles Sanders (draft, second round) 

Key departures: Jay Ajayi (free agent), Darren Sproles (free agent)

Why they could be better: Health

Josh Adams led the Eagles in rushing with 511 yards as an undrafted rookie in 2018. That should tell you all you need to know about the state of the running backs last year. Ajayi wasn’t healthy when the season started and had to tap out with a torn ACL after four games. Sproles missed Weeks 2 through 11 with a hamstring injury. And Corey Clement was lost to a horrific-looking lower body injury right about the time Sproles was finally returning.

Injuries can conspire to decimate a team or unit at any time, though the Eagles appear to be in a better place now. Ajayi always had a wonky knee, but in Jordan Howard, the offense has a workhorse who’s missed one game in three seasons. And while Miles Sanders just sat out OTAs, he’s 22 and less likely to break down than a 36-year-old Sproles who suited up for just nine games the last two years. Plus, Clement is expected back. Whether a Howard-Sanders tandem is an upgrade is unclear, but at least they should play.

Why they could be worse: No standouts

Worse might be a stretch – after all, the Eagles probably wound up with one of the worst backfields in the league in ’18. But before it devolved to that point, the unit looked pretty good on paper. Ajayi averaged almost 5.3 yards per carry after joining the club in 2017. Sproles averaged 4.9 plus another 8.8 yards per reception over a 14-year career. These were explosive, star-caliber players.

Howard averaged 5.2 yards per carry as a rookie, but in the two seasons since, a very mediocre only 3.9. And Sanders’ NFL.com scouting report says things like, “Lacks explosiveness,” “Average access to burst,” and “No home-run speed,” – not to mention “Doesn’t separate from linebackers on wheel routes,” a Sproles staple. Is their production going to vastly exceed that of an Adams-Wendell Smallwood combination? Maybe, but not exactly a given.

The X-factor: Will Sproles return?

If the season started today, Boston Scott potentially would be in line for snaps, at least as a receiver out of the backfield. Does that say more for Scott, a 2018 sixth-round pick the Eagles scooped off the Saints practice squad in December, or is it a commentary on the other options? Considering he has yet to register a catch or carry in the NFL, maybe the latter.

The Eagles don’t have a true third-down back right now, not somebody with meaningful experience anyway, so one can’t help but wonder if Sproles is still a fit for this team. Yes, the injuries are a concern, yet it looked like there was some gas in the tank when he returned last season with three touchdowns and 280 yards from scrimmage over the final five regular season games. Don’t be shocked if Sproles re-signs at some point in the next two months. That kind of production is the definition of an X-factor.

Are the Eagles’ running backs better or worse?

The bottom line is the Eagles added a two-time 1,000-yard rusher and a second-round talent, and the guys they are replacing are still on the street. Howard and Sanders both come with question marks attached, but Ajayi and Sproles barely played in ’18 – and Sproles isn’t necessarily out of the mix. As long as the new duo can out-rush Adams and Smallwood, they’re fine. 

BETTER

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More Better or Worse 

Making the case for Eagles to play Miles Sanders from Day 1

Making the case for Eagles to play Miles Sanders from Day 1

Forget the future. 

The Eagles need to play Miles Sanders a ton this year. 

Sure, the Eagles also added Jordan Howard in a trade this offseason, but there’s no reason to hold back on playing the second-round pick from Penn State. Running backs, perhaps more than any other position, can contribute early in their careers. That should be no different for Sanders. 

During training camp and the preseason games, he’s been proving that. 

Based on what he’s seen this summer, how much does Doug Pederson think Sanders can contribute as a rookie? 

“As much as we give him,” Pederson said. 

They should give him a lot. 

I think he’s does a great job with us so far,” Pederson continued. “The biggest concern coming into camp was obviously the health issue with coming out of the spring being injured a little bit. But I think he’s checked that box. Obviously, he’ll have a role for us. It’s good to have those two guys back there who are different runners but at the same time give us that running game that was missed a year ago.

We’ve seen impressive things from Sanders all summer, but now that he’s doing it in games, I actually have some video to show you. So let’s take a closer look at the different aspects of his game: 

Burst 

Sanders can hit a hole and with what should be a very good offensive line in front of him, there will be plenty of holes. 

Check out the first play against the Jaguars last week. Sanders makes a nice move to find a huge hole in front of him, then he bursts through it. 

It’s great to be able to cut, but Sanders’ ability to accelerate after the cut is what makes this play. That hole was huge, but it would have closed way quicker on a lot of backs. 

This is where his 4.49 second 40-yard dash time (70th percentile) shows up on the field. 

Power 

We all think of Howard as the power back in the rotation and maybe that will be true on goal line situations. But Sanders has power too. This run from the Eagles’ 5-yard line shows that. 

On this one, Sanders goes for a gain of 16, but about 12 of those yards came after contact. By the end of the play, he’s dragging Jaguars defenders to the 21-yard line. 

We saw this from Sanders at Penn State too. According to PFF, he ranked eighth among qualified FBS running backs in yards after contact per touch (3.68). As a runner, he averaged 3.8 yards after contact per rushing attempt and 845 of his 1,274 yards in 2018 came after contact. His legs keep churning. 

Blocking 

As much as everyone else was happy to see his running ability last week, Sanders beamed when talking about his blocking. The ability — or lack of ability — to pass protect is what often keeps rookie running backs off the field. Coming out of college, Sanders was at least a willing blocker, but we’re seeing he understands his assignments too. 

This block on blitzing linebacker Joe Giles-Harris allowed Clayton Thorson enough time to deliver a 38-yard touchdown pass to Greg Ward against the Jaguars. While some might notice the blitzer coming off the edge, Sanders picked the right guy and stuffed the ‘backer. 

Elusiveness 

This is the most exciting part of Sanders’ game and it’s the part that has prematurely drawn Shady comparisons. No, Sanders is not LeSean McCoy. There aren’t many guys who are as shifty as Shady. But Sanders does have the ability to make tacklers miss and his jump cut has been very impressive. 

The jump cut in Thursday’s game wasn’t as draw-dropping as the one he pulled off at the Linc during the public practice, but it’s still a good example. 

This play went for a modest gain of three yards, but it could have been a loss. Aside from just the physical ability to move laterally, vision is so important in this instance. The ability to get to the hole means nothing if the back can’t find it. 

Receiving 

Through two preseason games, Sanders hasn’t been targeted, so you’ll have to take my word on this one. He can catch. Really, I’ve been impressed by how smooth he’s looked as a pass catcher this summer in practice. 

In 2018, he caught 24 passes for 139 yards as a Nittany Lion, so he wasn’t exactly LaDanian Tomlinson, but he already looks like a more natural pass catcher than Howard, who has averaged 24 passes per year in longer NFL seasons. 

Sanders’ ability to catch the ball combined with not being a liability in pass protection could earn him some valuable third-down snaps even as a rookie. 

Ball security 

This is the one category where we’ll have to wait and see. The Eagles have been working with Sanders on ball security, but over time he’s just going to have to show he can be trusted. 

At Penn State, Sanders fumbled 10 times (lost 7), which means he fumbled once every 27.6 rushing attempts. That’s obviously way too many. To put it into perspective, Howard has fumbled just four times in his three-year NFL career; once every 194.5 snaps. 

There’s nothing Sanders can do to prove to coaches in practice that his fumbling issues are completely gone. He’ll have to prove it when the real games start. 

He should have plenty of chances to earn that trust. 

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More on the Eagles 

'You can't beat science:' Jason Peters on Carson Wentz and slow-healing ACLs

'You can't beat science:' Jason Peters on Carson Wentz and slow-healing ACLs

Jason Peters and Carson Wentz lived parallel lives there for a while.

Peters tore his ACL in October of 2017 and Wentz tore his knee about six weeks later.

Both spent countless hours with the Eagles’ trainers, in the weight room, grinding tirelessly to try to get back for the 2018 season.

They did get there. But they just weren't quite the same.

Peters was back by Week 1 and Wentz by Week 3, but neither played the way they had before their injuries.

Peters started all 18 games but missed 238 snaps or an average of 13 per game. He missed plays in 11 of those 18 games and for the first time since 2006 he failed to make the Pro Bowl in a season in which he played more than seven games.

Wentz missed the first two games while rehabbing the knee and the last three plus the postseason with a back injury and although his stats were fine, he never had the explosion and fluidity that had him in the MVP race late in 2017.

Me and him were just talking yesterday about the knee,” Peters said. “You can’t beat science. When they say 16, 18 months, that’s what it’s going to take to try to come back. I came back I want to say eight (months) was training camp for me and 10 was the season and it just wasn’t as strong as I could get it, but I made it through the season not damaging it anymore.

Peters spoke after practice Tuesday with NBC Sports Philadelphia’s John Clark.

He said part of his motivation this year, which will be his 17th in the NFL, is to shut up the people who doubted him while he struggled through last season.

No doubt,” he said. “I finished up last year in the playoffs against the Saints and went out the last series, but we could have made another run to the Super Bowl. I just played all year last year hurt, you know, trying to just grind it out. I gave up a couple plays here and there and you know how it is in Philly: ‘He ain’t got it no more.’ It’s just a big comeback year for me. Just to show everybody I still got it. I shouldn’t have to. But I had a down year last year with that knee injury. … You know how it is. Every year you’ve got to have a good year here in Philly or you’re going to get down-talked.

Wentz and Peters both have plenty to prove.

Peters, who made the Pro Bowl all nine years from 2007 through 2016 that he played, wants to prove he’s still one of the NFL’s dominating left tackles.

And Wentz is trying to prove that his magical 13-game stretch to open the 2017 season wasn’t a fluke, and that he can lead a team deep into the playoffs like his pal Nick Foles.

Two torn ACLs, two healthy superstars, two guys with a lot at stake. 

Neither former Pro Bowler missed a snap during training camp because of an injury and both look fantastic with opening day 18 days before the season opener.

He’s smooth," Peters said of Wentz. "A whole lot smoother. Me as well. Coming off the knee injuries it takes a year plus to be 100 (percent) and I feel good, he feel good, he’s real smooth, he’s getting the ball out, throwing the ball as well as I’ve seen him throw it since his rookie year. The deep ball is real nice going to D-Jack. Every time I look up it’s a touchdown.

The Eagles won a Super Bowl without Wentz or Peters. They’re both doing everything they can to make sure they don't miss the next one.

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More on the Eagles