Eagles Training Camp Preview: Running Backs

Eagles RBs coach Jemal Singleton wants a committee approach led by Miles Sanders
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Jemal Singleton knows what he wants from his crowded running back room and the Eagles’ new assistant head coach/running backs will use as many bodies as he needs to in order to get to the finished product.

"I think there are very specific skill sets that you need in your room," Singleton explained this spring. "So you need a first and second-down runner with that really elite ability. You need a guy that can pass protect on third down and can pick up short yardage. You need another back that can run routes, and you can put him out empty to do those types of things.

"So really, it’s a combination."

Miles Sanders is Singleton’s obvious answer for the first- and second-down runner and everything from there is up for debate.

From a skill-set standpoint, waiver-wire pickup Kerryon Johnson is the best pass protector Philadelphia has but will his balky knee hold up?

Jordan Howard was once a solid between-the-tackles runner for the Eagles and even more than that in Chicago but how much gas is left in a tank for a player who looked used up in Miami by 2020?

“Honestly, my market was pretty dry,” Howard said after re-signing with the Eagles. “I was at the point where I was having thoughts like I might be done because teams weren’t really calling. I’m grateful to have an opportunity to be back here.”

RELATED: Jordan Howard Thought his Career was Over - Sports Illustrated

While Kenny Gainwell spent a lot of his college career at Memphis splitting out as a receiver, it’s always a tall task to ask any rookie fifth-round pick to hit the ground running in the NFL.

Sanders himself showed some really good flashes as a receiver and pass protector as a rookie but regressed last season and Boston Scott is competent in many areas but really doesn’t have a standout trait.

Then you have the potential problem with a piecemeal approach because the play-caller, in this case, rookie head coach Nick Sirianni, has to be very disciplined to not tip-off opposing defenses with personnel.

Perhaps the best-case scenario is Sanders becoming the more well-rounded back he seemed to be en route to developing into by the end of his rookie season before taking a step back in 2020.

Singleton, though, seems committed to a committee approach, also noting that wear-and-tear has to enter the equation.

"I think the days of, 'hey, he’s a true every-down back' are a little skewed these days because of how many hits you can take," Singleton said. "When I look at an NFL room, it has to have all of those [above] abilities …

“You may have two guys with similar abilities, so maybe you split carries. You might have a guy who excels in the pass-game stuff, so maybe that’s what he does. I think more each year, you’re going to see multiple people in the backfield because of the position and what it requires."

DEPTH CHART

Miles Sanders; Boston Scott; Kerryon Johnson; Jordan Howard; Kenny Gainwell; Jason Huntley; Elijah Holyfield; *Adrian Killins (listed as a RB but spent most of OTAs working with the WRs).

Kerryon Johnson could fill a role the Eagles have been searching for since LeGarrette Blount

Kerryon Johnson

WHAT’S CHANGED

The newcomers are Johnson and Gainwell, players who could be in the mix of the rotation or fall flat.

Once a second-round pick of the Lions in the 2018 NFL draft, a balky knee, and an influx of talent in the backfield over the past two years in Detroit made Johnson expendable. The Eagles, in need of a capable third-down back as a complement to Sanders, were happy to take a flyer on him.

“The Eagles saw something in me and I appreciate them seeing it and I’m ready to give this organization 100 percent,” Johnson said. “What I have left is 100 percent. That’s what I’m going to give, that’s what I’m going to fight for, that’s what I’m going to do, that’s who I’m going to be, and that’s what I’ve shown in the past and that’s what I’m going to keep showing.”

Gainwell, a cousin of Fletcher Cox, was off the charts from a production standpoint during his one season at Memphis (2019) when he was named first-team All-American Athletic Conference and the AAC Rookie of the Year after rushing for 1,459 yards on 231 carries (6.3 per rush) and adding 51 receptions for 610 yards.

"Just that one year, Coach Norvell [Memphis head coach Mike Norvell] taught me a lot," Gainwell said. "Coming in young, playing young, I had to learn the playbook as fast as I can. I kind of did what I had to do. I put in the work and made sure I stayed on top of what I had to do. That kind of gave me the upper hand."

"I'm a rare breed," Gainwell continued. "I'm a different one."

Eagles rookie RB Kenny Gainwell at practice on June, 2021

Kenny Gainwell

HIGHLIGHT REEL

A home-run hitter, the goal is turning Sanders from a one-trick pony like Dave Kingman into a potential triple-crown option like Ted Williams.

There are few RBs in the NFL more of a threat to take it the distance than Sanders, who ripped off three 70-plus yard runs last season.

Now the Eagles and Singleton would like Sanders to touch up the rest of the game by improving as a pass-catcher, pass protector and also making sure he takes what’s blocked for him - meaning if four yards are there, seize it and move on to the next play instead of trying to bounce outside and find the big play.

RELATED: Miles Sanders Poised to Become Focal Point of Eagles ...

The other part of Sanders’ evolution is durability, always a slippery slope with RBs. To continue with the baseball analogies, most backs are on a pitch count these days and that certainly seems like what Singleton wants to do with Sanders.

Like most feature backs, however, Sanders wants the rock as much as possible.

“I’m focused on playing all 17 games," Sanders noted. "I don’t like missing games, [missing] four games [in 2020] was way too many especially for them being two or three divisional games.

"That don’t sit right with me.”

Although most players aren't thrilled with the move from 16 to 17 games, Sanders is a little different.

"More games, more yards," he smiled.

The optimistic Sanders sees big things ahead.

"I love the whole offense the way it’s being taught to us," he said. "Everybody is learning the offense. Coaches, too. And that’s what’s so cool about this situation right now – everybody is literally learning the offense together."

CAMP BATTLES

Maybe no position has more competition but it all starts behind Sanders where you can make credible cases for Scott, Johnson, Howard, and Gainwell garnering playing time.

If Johnson is healthy (a big if) he might be the most well-rounded back on the roster. Gainwell arrives with the receiving tag and Howard is a proven between-the-tackles runner if his legs have anything left.

Scott, meanwhile, was the No. 2 last year and will presumably start from that default position.

RELATED: Philadelphia Eagles RB Boston Scott aiming to be No. 2 on ...

"We're all competitive," Scott said of the RB room. "I mean we're concerned with one thing and that's being great, We all think of ourselves as starters. That's the kind of swagger that we have in that room and a work ethic that matches it.

"So each and every one of those guys, they show up every single day, ready to work, you know, and that only helps everybody in the room. With elite talent in the room, the standard is brought up for everybody so there's nothing but good things are gonna happen from competition."

ROCKY: THE LONGSHOT

Jason Huntley came in as a late addition last year and his easiest path to a roster spot is as a kickoff returner but he might have the most juice on this team after Sanders.

WHO STAYS ON THE 53?

Presuming the Eagles keep four the only guarantees are Sanders and the rookie Gainwell. Scott has an inside track and the final spot might come down to Johnson’s health vs. the gas left in Howard’s tank .

WHO GOES?

The numbers seem long for Huntley, Holyfield, and Killins.

John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com's EagleMaven and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media. You can listen to John, alongside legendary sports-talk host Jody McDonald every morning from 8-10 on ‘Birds 365,” streaming live on both PhillyVoice.com and YouTube. John is also the host of his own show "Extending the Play" on AM1490 in South Jersey. You can reach him at jmcmullen44@gmail.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen

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.