Sports

Why Miles Sanders could have a bust-out season for Philadelphia Eagles

PHILADELPHIA — There is a pretty compelling case to be made for Philadelphia Eagles running back Miles Sanders having a breakout season in 2021.

But nobody wants to hear it.

That’s largely because similar prognostications last offseason fell flat. The 2019 second-round draft pick was a hot name in fantasy football and was expected to make the leap toward the upper echelon of backs in Year 2 after setting franchise rookie records for all-purpose yards (1,641) and yards from scrimmage (1,327). Instead, Sanders missed four games with hamstring and knee injuries and finished 15th in rushing yards (867) and tied for 25th in rushing touchdowns (6).

His receiving numbers dipped dramatically, going from 50 receptions on 63 targets (79% catch rate) for 509 yards and three TDs in 2019 to 28 catches on 52 targets (54% catch rate) for 197 yards and no scores last season.

The production fell short of the hype. Sanders has been flying under the radar all summer as a result, further covered by the low expectations surrounding the Eagles, who are coming off a 4-11-1 season and are led by a green quarterback and coach combo in Jalen Hurts and Nick Sirianni.

But a closer look reveals why Sanders has bust-out potential.

Improved health

Sanders, 24, dealt with a hamstring strain for the bulk of training camp last year and was sidelined for Week 1. Then he hurt his knee in October against the Baltimore Ravens and missed the next two weeks. He was never quite right. A rash of injuries along the offensive line made things even trickier, as the Eagles set an NFL record by having 13 different offensive line combinations in the first 14 weeks.

Sanders and the O-line are healthy heading into the Sept. 12 regular-season opener at the Atlanta Falcons (1 p.m. ET, Fox). The front features three players who are over 30 years old in center Jason Kelce (33), guard Brandon Brooks (32) and right tackle Lane Johnson (31), but if the offensive line can avoid injuries, it has top-five potential.

“Man, my confidence is through the roof with this offensive line,” Sanders said. “I’m not going to lie, I’m not going to sugarcoat it. We can do a lot of special things with this O-line. They know that, everybody else in this building knows that. We’re going to go as they go.”

Sneaky-strong numbers

Sanders ranked fourth in yards per carry (5.3) behind Cleveland’s Nick Chubb (5.6), Green Bay’s Aaron Jones (5.5) and Tennessee’s Derrick Henry (5.4).

He flashed big-play ability, becoming the first Eagles player to record multiple rushing touchdowns of 70-plus yards in a single season. And he was the first running back to break three runs of 70-plus yards since 2012 when Jamaal Charles, Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson did so.

Put his two seasons together, and Sanders lands in pretty impressive company. He has produced the fourth most scrimmage yards per touch (5.7) since 2019 among running backs with at least 300 touches behind the Los Angeles ChargersAustin Ekeler (6.3), New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara (5.8) and Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey (5.8). He is fourth in the NFL in rushing average (4.9 yards per carry) over that span and leads the league in rushing plays of 60-plus yards (4).

The Hurts factor

Hurts and Sanders were paired together for three games last season. (Sanders sat out the season finale against the Washington Football Team.) In those three games, Sanders averaged 103 yards from scrimmage while scoring three of his six rushing touchdowns.

The threat Hurts presents as a runner keeps defenses honest. And Sanders saw improved efficiency as a pass-catcher, hauling in 69% of his targets from Hurts — well above his catch rate of 49% when former Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz was under center.

“We have a lot of guys that have great opportunities to do special things this year. I think a lot of guys have taken huge steps. And Miles, you know he’s going to tote the rock, you know he’s going to catch the ball out of the backfield, and I’m excited to see what he does,” Hurts said. “He’s a big-time player, hard to tackle, he runs his tail off. It should be fun.”

Sirianni’s offense

There is still much to be revealed about Sirianni’s system, but there’s reason to believe it will be running-back friendly.

Sanders gave us a hint about what it might look like.

“It’s very similar to college, just switching from a pro-style to an RPO [run-pass option] offense,” said Sanders, who rushed for 1,274 yards on 220 carries (5.8 avg) with nine TDs his final year at Penn State. “I love it. It’s just getting our athletes into space, and getting one-on-one matchups with certain players and just allowing us to be who we are.”

Sirianni’s last job was as offensive coordinator for the Indianapolis Colts, who deployed a fairly balanced attack. The Colts ranked 10th in rushing attempts last season with 459 compared to 403 for Philadelphia, which ranked 24th. In 2019, Indianapolis was fifth in rushing attempts (471) and the Eagles were seventh (454). Colts running back Jonathan Taylor finished third in the league in rushing yards last season (1,169).

“We’ve obviously been impressed with Miles’ ability to play. He’s a very talented back. Excited about the things he’s going to be able to do this year for our team,” Sirianni said.

“As far as [splitting playing time] goes, we just like to keep guys fresh. If Miles needs a break, we’ll have a guy in there to sub him. Then also, with our passing game, there are definitely things Miles can do, but we also have some other backs, like with Kenny [Gainwell], rotate in, and Boston [Scott] is doing a good job of that as well.”

The X factor

Sanders had a strong training camp, showing good patience and next-level acceleration through the hole. However, he had issues holding on to the ball in the passing game. Drops became a regular sight, fueling concerns that last season’s struggles as a pass-catcher were more than just a blip.

The rookie Gainwell, meanwhile, excelled in that area, just as he did at Memphis. Sanders had no problem conceding Gainwell has the best hands among the Eagles’ running backs.

If Sanders has issues early on, it would be no surprise if Gainwell and Scott take on larger roles in the pass game, thereby eating into Sanders’ snaps.

Sanders has been catching the ball with more consistency of late. If he can keep that up, and avoid injuries, a big season awaits.

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