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Antiquated Expectations Have Fueled Disappointment in Miles Sanders

Bellcow backs are an endangered species in the NFL

You can make a very strong argument that true bell-cow running backs have gone the way of lockdown cornerbacks in the modern NFL game, maybe not extinct but surely endangered.

In 2021 you had all of one back, Indianapolis star and Salem, NJ, native Jonathan Taylor, who cracked the 1,500-yard barrier, and the former Wisconsin standout lapped that measuring stick with 1,811 yards on the ground.

With Tennessee's Derrick Henry, a back-to-back 1,500-yard rusher and two-time defending rushing leader coming into 2021, missing nine games, No. 2 behind Taylor was well over 500 yards behind his pace, Nick Chubb of Cleveland with 1,259 yards.

Overall, there were a total of seven 1,000-yard rushers in the entire league despite the move to 17 games yet in Philadelphia, where the evolution of football is often stuck in a previous generation's mentality, it's become an annual tradition to wonder if Miles Sanders is finally going to have a "breakout year."

Last season, Sanders was No. 26 in rushing with a career-low of 754 yards while missing five games. The Penn State product did, however, match Taylor and Chubb at 5.5 yards-per-carry for tops in the NFL. The only ball-carriers better were quarterbacks Lamar Jackson and Sanders' teammate, Jalen Hurts.

More so, if you do the math, Sanders averaged 62.8 rushing yards per game last season which would be an additional 314 yards on top of the 754 total if healthy. Combine the two numbers and you reach 1,068, a number that would have made Sanders the sixth-leading rusher in the NFL last season.

If its and buts were candy and nuts we'd all have a party to celebrate that but availability is the best ability around the NFL for a reason and until Sanders actually puts together a year comparable to his top peers he's never going to be regarded as a member of the elite.

Sanders himself seems to have bought into the unrealistic expectations that are also somewhat hampered by Nick Sirianni's preference, like most NFL coaches, of using multiple backs in his offense.

“[My] mentality is a little different,” Sanders said earlier this year “It’s taking it a little personal, just the year I had last year. I was nowhere near as satisfied with where I played or my availability. So all that stuff means a lot to me. Being the top guy in the running back room, I’ve got to hold the standard. … That’s being healthy and being able to produce.”

What the above exercise does validate, from an efficacy standpoint, is that Sanders is already among the top NFL RBs when he's on the field, albeit clearly behind the Tier 1 backs who have proven they can take things to another level, a very small group that includes Taylor, Henry, perhaps Chubb. along with Dalvin Cook and Christian McCaffrey when healthy or Ezekiel Elliott before Dallas ran him into the ground.

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As far as up-and-comers, players like Pittsburgh's Najee Harris and Denver's Javonte Williams strike me as having the potential to reach that level.

Sanders admittedly does not, but there is nothing wrong with Tier 2.

Where Sanders is right to be self-critical is the availability part of the equation, along with occasional struggles catching the football and in pass protection. Those things need improvement.

“Some stuff I can improve on and with injuries, as simple as that,” Sanders said. “I didn’t catch the ball as well as I should have, made the wrong reads sometimes. (I can) just try to be a better player all over and more consistent.”

Moving forward Sanders is entering the final season of his rookie deal and maybe the status quo - with a few more games on the field - isn't the worst thing, perhaps a 900-plus season at over 5.0 per pop.

At that rate, Sanders could maybe command over $4 million a season for multiple years and perhaps the Eagles would at least entertain bringing him back in 2023.

Anything more than that, at a devalued position, and you can likely forget about a second contact with the Eagles.

The bigger point here is the expectations and how unrealistic they are, though.

Over the last three NFL seasons, there have been four total 1,500-yard rushing campaigns by Taylor, Henry, who has done it twice, and Cook. Move it down to 1,250 and the total only reaches eight.

So, maybe the real answer for the Eagles fan base when it comes to Sanders, or any back for that matter, is to reassess what is expected in the current environment.

-John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com's Eagles Today and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Sports. You can listen to John, alongside legendary sports-talker Jody McDonald, every morning from 8-10 on ‘Birds 365,” streaming live on YouTube.com and JAKIBSports.com. You can reach John at jmcmullen44@gmail.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen