Examining the NFC East: The Running Backs

The Eagles need certain traits at RB and will use a committee approach to find them

PHILADELPHIA - Our annual series examining the NFC East from a positional perspective with the help of league personnel sources continues with the running back room, a positional group that figures to provide some trademark Nick Sirianni "competition," at least after Miles Sanders.

Sanders has turned into one of the NFL's biggest home run hitters but the new coaching staff is a lot like the old one in that they would like to see Sanders' skill set evolve into a more well-rounded one.

"I think there are very specific skill sets that you need in your room," assistant head coach/RBs coach Jemal Singleton said. "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."

The problem with finding that competition from multiple sources is twofold.

The answer as to who the Eagles' best option is at all of those traits might be different with Sanders being the first- and second-down RB with elite ability, waiver-wire pickup Kerryon Johnson the best in pass pro, Jordan Howard the top short-yardage option if healthy, and probably rookie Kenny Gainwell the leader in the clubhouse when it comes to routes and empty sets.

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From there if you're going to piecemeal things the play-caller has to be very disciplined when it comes to not tip-off opposing defenses with personnel changes.

That means the best-case scenario for the Eagles is for Sanders to become the more well-rounded back he seemed to be developing into at the end of his rookie season before taking a step back as a receiver and pass protector in 2020.

"He can't be out there on third downs right now and they have plenty of options," an ex-AFC personnel executive said when discussing Sanders. "Johnson is a good fit for the third-down role but his knee is an issue."

At 5-foot-11 and 211 pounds, Sanders is not cut out for a Derrick Henry-level of touches so the Eagles need to keep him on a pitch count anyway and the easiest way to do that is to limit his usage on third downs.

"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."

Miles Sanders takes handoff from Carson Wentz against Bengals

Miles Sanders is still the Eagles' top backfield option

Here's how the NFC East shapes up when it comes to the running backs:

No. 4 - Washington Football Team: Antonio Gibson had a really good rookie season as a runner and has top-tier receiving skills as well after playing the WR position in college at Memphis. He's still a little raw but at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, the upside for Gibson is tremendous. The third-down back is the underrated J.D. McKissic, who is one of the better route-runners in the NFL out of the backfield.

"Fast forward 12 months and we could be talking about Gibson being one of the best RBs in the NFL," an AFC scout predicted.

No. 3 - Philadelphia Eagles: Sanders' play hasn't met the perception of it locally other than the home-run hitting aspect. Right now he's a 30-home run guy who is hitting .230. You know the explosive plays will be there but he needs to be more consistent in all aspects, including running between the tackles as well as pass receiving and pass pro.

After Sanders the Eagles' carpet-bombed the depth choices with cheap options - Boston Scott, Johnson, and Howard - as well as a rookie fifth-round pick in Gainwell. The hope is that one of those lottery tickets is cashed but the uncertainty of the position is probably greater than the rest of the division.

No. 2 - New York Giants: Everything hinges on the health of Saquon Barkley, who is one of the most dynamic RBs in football when he's right. If Barkley returns to form after a torn ACL then New York will likely have the best RB situation in the NFC East and if he can't go at the level he once could the Giants will have the worst situation at the position in the division because potential backups Devontae Booker, Elijhaa Penny, and old fried Corey Clement aren't scaring anyone.

For now, we will start the Giants out at No. 2 but their real place will be No. 1 with a healthy Barkley and No. 4 without him.

"Barkley might be the most important player in the division," a former NFC scout said. "His presence will do so much for Daniel Jones and if he's not there everything will come off the rails offensively,"

No. 1 - Dallas Cowboys: Ezekiel Elliott's slip in play can be traced to two factors - his enormous amount of touches over the years and the Cowboys' offensive line injuries.

The latter should be better this season and that will tell us all we need to know about the former.

"I don't think he's going to be that explosive guy he once was but he's still a good player in all three phases," a former AFC personnel executive said.

Backup Tony Pollard puts Dallas over the top in the division in that he's been very effective in limited touches. The question is can that continue without diminishing returns if the workload is increased?

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.