Examining the NFC East: Running Backs
Our daily series examining the NFC East from a positional perspective with the help of league personnel sources moves to running back, an embarrassment of riches in the division with a proven All-Pro, perhaps the most physically-gifted option in the game, and a slam dunk future Hall of Famer among the lead backs.
None of those reside In Philadelphia, however, but the Eagles may be on the verge of having the best player at the position in the Doug Pederson era in emerging second-year star Miles Sanders, who ended his rookie season in a serious ascent after experiencing some real difficulties early.
The Eagles were so enamored with Sanders’ skill-set as the No. 53 overall pick out of Penn State in the 2019 draft where he once interned under New York Giants star Saquon Barkley, that they pulled the trigger on Sanders early, tabbing him as the lead back instead of veteran trade pickup Jordan Howard.
In hindsight that was actually a mistake although Sanders showed his explosive nature at times. He struggled mightily with the little things like pass protection and hitting his landmarks in the passing game as an outlet receiver while also running tentatively at times and trying to bounce everything outside to hit the home run.
The decision was made to flip the committee with Howard taking over as the lead back and that went really well for a few weeks until a shoulder injury essentially derailed the rest of the season for Howard, who subsequently signed as a free agent this offseason with Miami.
Sanders embraced the step back to breathe a little bit and returned to the lead role as a more confident player, allowing his natural gifts to take over. From a physical standpoint Sanders has everything you need to be a three-down back and his ultimate ceiling will be defined by the little things.
Remember that Sanders got significant playing time for just one season at Penn State due to the presence of Barkley so there is some rawness to his game that needs to be sharpened.
“Explosive kid,” a former AFC personnel executive said. “He’s a home-run hitter but he’s not the most natural runner. He’s got to learn to take what’s there consistently but a lot of young backs have that same problem. That line (offensive line) will help.”
No. 4 - Washington Redskins - Adrian Peterson is perhaps the best combination of speed and power at the RB position since Jim Brown but he’s also 35 at a position where 30 is a dirty word. Peterson remains a physical marvel and is a former MVP at a position that is arguably the most devalued in the entire league, an almost incomprehensible achievement.
Even in his prime, however, Peterson was never a well-rounded back and the Redskins would have liked the oft-injured Derrius Guice to take over the lead role by now but that might never happen. Former Stanford star Bryce Love and ex-Tampa Bay RB Peyton Barber are also in the mix
In the passing game Chris Thompson has moved on and the Redskins brought in explosive third-round rookie Antonio Gibson to liven up the offense. They also signed JD McKissic in free agency in case Gibson, who was a manufactured-touch player as a hybrid wide receiver/running back at Memphis, needs some time to ramp up.
“You want to turn the page on Peterson but he keeps showing up,” a former NFC scout said. “Gibson is interesting if they can figure out a way to harness that explosiveness. That’s a real modern player that can stress a defense in many ways. (I) would have loved to see him with Andy (Reid).”
3. - Philadelphia Eagles - Since Pederson arrived in 2016 the Eagles have used a committee approach in the backfield and there is no obvious complement to Sanders right now.
Boston Scott showed plenty in Philadelphia’s last-season run and he might be the answer.
“People look st his size but he’s not small, he’s short like Darren (Sproles),” a former AFC scout said. “Why can’t he handle the workload? He proved quite a bit last season. I think he’s a breakout candidate.”
In the past Philadelphia has always preferred at least one big back who could move the chains inside the tackles, such as LeGarrette Blount, Jay Ajayi, or Howard, and an NFL source confirmed to SI.com there was interest in Carlos Hyde, who recently signed in Seattle. As far as the other high-profile veterans available Devonta Freeman wants too much money and LeSean McCoy’s skill-set might be too redundant with Sanders.
For now that might be an opportunity for Super Bowl LII hero Corey Clement, who wasn’t tendered before being brought back at a discount. Other unproven players in the mix are Elijah Holyfield and undrafted free agent Michael Warren.
2. - New York Giants - Barkley should be the best RB in football from a pure traits standpoint but issues on the offensive line with the Giants and a high-ankle sprain last season have slowed his trajectory a bit.
Defenders, however, are in awe of Barkley’s sprinter speed combined with his significant power. In some ways, he’s like a more modern Peterson with receiving skills. Now that the Giants are starting to figure things out on the offensive line, have a young quarterback who can threaten you downfield in Daniel Jones, and Barkley is healthy, the former No. 2 overall pick could live up to the lofty expectations.
Former Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins for one would talk with reverence when discussing Barkey’s ability and anytime he’s on the field, he’s a legitimate matchup nightmare for opposing defenses and must be game-planned for.
“He’s special,” a former NFC scout said of Barkley. “He’s got every tool in the toolbox and can beat you in both phases (the running and passing games).”
Dion Lewis was brought in to be the pseudo-third-down back although obviously Barkey can handle all aspects of things. That said, Lewis is a solid threat as a receiver while Wayne Gallman showed some things as a backup when Barkley was down last season.
1. - Dallas Cowboys - A proven workhorse, Ezekiel Elliott is on the shortlist to be All-Pro year-in and year-out. He’s also extremely well-rounded as an effective pass receiver and excellent pass protector.
Barkley is more explosive but Elliott is far more consistent and durable. Many talk about Dak Prescott when discussing the Cowboys offense or the impressive WR corps which has now added CeeDee Lamb to Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup but the straw that stirs the drink is Elliott. Everything is built on his sturdy foundation.
“I’m interested to see what Mike (McCarthy) does with that offense,” a former AFC personnel executive said, “but I know when he gets (the players) there he will start with Elliott and go from there.
Capable depth is provided by Tony Pollard but Elliott can handle every aspect of the job. Rico Dowdle is an undrafted free agent who could push for the No. 3 job.
John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com's EagleMaven and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media. You can listen to John every Monday and Friday on SIRIUSXM’s Tony Bruno Show with Harry Mayes, and every Tuesday and Thursday with Eytan Shander on SBNation Radio. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen