Let’s go beyond the obvious when it comes to Eagles training camp.
You know, the obvious - the left tackle battle, the great cornerback unknown beyond Darius Slay and Avonte Maddox, the bottom of the wide receiver depth chart fight to stay on the roster.
You know, the obvious.
With the countdown to the first practice of summer inside 10 days, let’s start with something a little deeper and beyond the obvious.
Like the running back situation.
It’s pretty obvious that Miles Sanders will be front and center with the roles of several others, including Boston Scott, Kerryon Johnson, Jordan Howard, and rookie Kenny Gainwell still to be defined.
The issue, though, is will owner Jeffrey Lurie accept Nick Sirianni’s want to run the ball?
The Eagles’ new coach said he wants play action to be a vital part of the game plan each week, but to establish the play action a team has to be able to run the ball.
The offseason was spent fortifying the position, too, with Johnson, Howard, and Gainwell being brought in.
Lurie wasn’t reportedly pleased (unhappy may be too harsh of a word) in a win over the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field in 2019 when there were more running plays called than passing plays.
But, hey, a win is a win no matter how it’s achieved, so Lurie couldn’t have been too upset, right?
Still, it was curious that the report surfaced.
Maybe not so curious when you go even further back, to 2018, when Lurie was asked his opinion on “establishing the run” during one of his meetings with the media.
“What's the right way to say this?” Lurie asked himself before answering. "It's just not a truthful way of reporting based on all the information we now have. OK? That's sort of a nice way to say it.”
Analytics and the NFL were just beginning to hit their stride together in those days, probably even sooner.
Alec Halaby, a 2009 Harvard graduate, has worked with the Eagles ever since in a variety of roles. One of his responsibilities now is overseeing the use of analytics and data decisions and working closely with GM Howie Roseman.
Running and analytics don’t mix well.
It’s a passing league, so running the ball isn’t something that is viewed fondly. It is, though, a necessary evil.
Sanders is a back that flourishes the more he touches the ball it seems. The Eagles tried to move to more of a one-back philosophy in 2020 and Sanders had difficulty staying healthy, so it makes sense that RB coach Jemal Singleton said last month that the Eagles would like to use more of a rotational running back system.
What exactly that looks like perhaps can be better gauged once training camp opens and ramps up.
There’s no denying Sanders must be a big part of that rotation and hope that he can hold up from a health standpoint.
Sanders has had just five games in his first two seasons where he had more than 20 touches between running and catching.
Here’s the rundown of Sanders’ 20-plus touch games:
- Week 2, 2019: 22 touches with 17 runs for 83 yards and five catches for 22 yards in a loss to Miami.
- Week 14, 2019: 25 touches with 19 carries for 122 yards and six catches for 50 yards on a win over Washington Football. He scored two touchdowns in that game, one rushing, one receiving.
- Week 15, 2019: 25 touches with 20 runs for 79 yards and five receptions for 77 yards in a win over the Cowboys. He had a rushing TD.
- Week 2, 2020: After missing the season opener with an injury, Sanders had 23 touches, with 20 rushes for 95 yards and three catches for 36 yards in a loss to the Rams.
- Week 3, 2020: 22 touches with 18 runs for 95 yards and four receptions for 12 yards in a tie vs. the Bengals.
That’s a 2-2-1 record, but it’s clear Sanders is better with more touches.
Also noteworthy is that Sanders didn’t have 20 touches in any game after Week 3 last year. Some of that was injury and some of that was Sanders’ struggles with catching the ball.
Some of that was probably analytics, something Lurie certainly sold Pederson on. It was certainly a topic much-talked-about with the former head coach.
So the run game, its usage, and that of Sanders, in particular, is something to pay attention to when camp begins and the preseason games fire up, something that may not be quite as obvious as, well, the obvious.
Ed Kracz is the publisher of SI.com’s Eagle Maven and co-host of the Eagles Unfiltered Podcast. Check out the latest Eagles news at www.SI.com/NFL/Eagles and please follow him on Twitter: @kracze.