Even though the Eagles came into this season with Corey Clement as their primary kick returner, special teams coordinator Dave Fipp admitted this week that he actually thought Miles Sanders was their best option.
Turns out he was right.
And now that Sanders has taken over the job, don’t expect him to give it back.
“With Corey being out, it kind of pushed him up,” Fipp said. “Excited and happy for him that he was able to make a play and show that he’s got some talent at that and can help us out. I think it also helps being able to justify playing him back there.”
Clement injured his shoulder in the Atlanta game, so Sanders became the Eagles’ primary kick returner and he kept the job even after Clement returned to action last week.
On Thursday night against the Packers, Sanders returned a kick 67 yards to give the Eagles a short field early in the second quarter. Five plays later, they scored their first touchdown of the game. That return was a huge momentum play in the eventual 34-27 win.
The 67-yarder was the Eagles’ longest kick return since Josh Huff had a 98-yarder for a touchdown back in 2016. For reference, Clement’s longest-career return is 48 yards.
Sanders, 22, has returned seven kicks this season for 183 yards. His average of 26.1 yards per return ranks second in the NFL among players with at least five attempts.
“I like it, personally,” said Sanders, who returned 38 kicks at Penn State with an average of 20.1 yards per attempt. “Hopefully, [I will] break one one day.”
The reason the Eagles went with Clement as their kick returner to start the season is because of Sanders’ offensive workload. Through a quarter of the season, Sanders leads the Eagles’ running back rotation in offensive snaps and touches.
But with today’s rules, there just aren’t a lot of kick returns anymore. The Eagles returned a total of 33 kicks last season for an average of just over two per game. So, theoretically, there won’t be much more stress on Sanders. And, like we saw Thursday, the pay-off can be huge.
“I would say that would be one way to argue it,” Fipp said through a laugh.
Is that how he argues it?
Yeah, Fipp says that too. But they have to manage every player’s role. And while there are fewer returns, that play does have some danger associated with it. For now, the Eagles think the reward outweighs the risk.
Through four games, Sanders has 445 all-purpose yards. That’s the second-most ever for an Eagles rookie behind just DeSean Jackson in 2008. And the previous three NFL running backs to put up that many all-purpose yards in their first four games are Saquon Barkley, Kareem Hunt and Ezekiel Elliott. That’s elite company. If Sanders keeps his job as a return man — and he should — he can stay with that group.
So what makes Sanders good at returning?
“He’s got a great feel for letting the play develop out in front of him,” Fipp said. “He’s got really good vision. The guy obviously has a really talented skillset. That’s why he was drafted. He can run, he’s got good feet, he’s elusive. He’s got speed. He’s a good player.”
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