Miles Sanders Poised to Become Focal Point of Eagles Offense

Now entering this third season, the RB  projects to be one of the top benefactors of the Eagles offense with Nick Sirianni in charge
Author:
Publish date:

PHILADELPHIA — Ask yourself who is the Eagles' best skill player on the offensive side of the ball, and if it's not Miles Sanders, an argument for anyone else would be a challenge.

The running back has yet to hit the cusp of his prime, yet has already showcased strong playmaking ability in his first two seasons in Philadelphia. 

The Eagles selected Sanders in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft, the highest the organization had drafted a running back since LeSean McCoy. 

Sanders, who will turn just 24 on the final day of the 2021 NFL Draft, on May 1, has the making of bringing the same type of impact to the city that drafted him as McCoy brought to Philadelphia, but consistency is the first aspect of his short career the running back has to nail down.

He struggled to catch the ball last year and also had trouble staying healthy, playing just 11 games, with one of the missed games being the season opener when the Eagles were upset by the Washington Football Team.

Bringing in a new play-caller in Nick Sirianni should help Sanders capture some of that consistency, at least from a play-calling perspective.

According to TeamRankings, the Eagles ran the ball on 37.8 percent of their plays in 2020, which ranked them 25th lowest in the NFL. 

For a sophomore running back-facing teams with a year of film to go off his tendencies, the lack of consistent rushing plays was an overall hindrance for Sanders to build any rhythm.

Doug Pederson failed to generate a balanced offensive approach that either of his quarterbacks could lean on or keep defensive coordinators guessing. 

When Sanders openly admitted that nobody liked the decision to bench Jalen Hurts during the week 17 quarterback debacle in Philadelphia’s loss to Washington, and yet team leaders came out and said the direct opposite, then it may have been pent up frustration from his inexplicable usage at the hand of Pederson.

During his last two seasons in Indianapolis, Nick Sirianni has been aiding a top-ten rushing play percentage. The Colts were ranked fifth in 2019 and ninth in 2020 as opposed to the Eagles' 13th and 25th rankings, respectively. 

The commitment of balance shown benefits a running back like Sanders. 

A home run threat, who had a league-high three runs of 50-plus yards this past season, Sanders’ skillset demands rhythm to impose his ability on opposing defenses. 

According to Pro Football Focus, Sanders’ league rankings for carries are 22nd in 2019 and 21st in 2020. The lack of usage has incredibly outweighed the potential rushing productivity he could bring to Philadelphia’s backfield. 

So far, the Eagles' continued lack of urgency to add to their running back room, puts Sanders as the team's No. 1 RB heading into 2021, a role he was supposed to fill in 2020, but never quite met the standard. 

With Jordan Howard's return to Philadelphia’s backfield, it is likely the organization won’t add a running back in the first two days of the draft, further cementing Sanders’ lead back status this year.

The rookie head coach will be tasked with combining what worked to Sanders’ advantages during his rookie year plus sophomore season to unlock the running back’s Pro Bowl potential.

Two key factors play into Sirianni’s ability to provide the necessary structure for Sanders to thrive: the first being right guard Brandon Brooks’ expected return and secondly Hurts’ mobility.

The word adaptability comes up a lot when discussing why the Eagles were so keen on hiring the former Colts offensive coordinator. 

Frank Reich and Sirianni didn’t know what they were going to get out of a backup caliber quarterback as an emergency starter in Jacoby Brissett or Philip Rivers so the two coaches called a balanced system.

With the unknown of what caliber of quarterback Hurts can develop into, it’s fair to assume Sirianni will aim for the same balance in Philadelphia’s offense as he’s been a part of the last two years with Reich in Indianapolis.

Not only will the first-year head coach lean on the rushing attack as a crutch for his unproven second-year quarterback, but he’ll give Sanders more consistent touches for the running back to build his rhythm.

Brooks' return to the Eagles' offensive line will also have a significant impact on Sanders’ rushing production.

According to Pro Football Focus, Sanders ran the ball in Brooks's direction the most of his 178 rushing attempts in 2019. The running back posted 67 rushing attempts, 277 yards, 202 yards after contact, six first downs, and six runs that went 10-plus yards when he ran in Brooks’ direction. 

Sanders production running behind the Eagles’ revolving door at right guard fared well, considering context, but yard- after-contact were noticeably down by 87 yards. The rushing attempts weren’t nearly as plenty with 23 fewer carries in the direction of his right guard as well.

Sanders' comfort level showed as a rookie running behind his All-Pro caliber right guard wasn’t something to be easily replicated by the Eagles with the absence of Brooks last season. 

With the contract restructure done, Brooks appears to be a part of Philadelphia’s plans heading into 2021, which bodes well for Sanders’ confidence rushing to his familiar direction. 

But the running back will have to improve in one key area Sanders excelled at in his rookie season - catching the football. 

Sanders was the Eagles' best vertical threat on multiple accounts in 2019. He had more than 500 receiving yards during his rookie year and 19 first downs through the air. 

Quarterback Carson Wentz had a passer rating of 117.0 when targeting Sanders, and the running back showcased his ability to be a dual-threat in Philadelphia’s offense.

Perhaps you can credit Sanders’ lackluster production catching the ball during his sophomore season due to the Eagles’ broken offense. Regardless, the former Penn State running back is better in that category than his statistics showed in year two. 

Finishing with less than 200 yards while being targeted 50 times and dropping eight passes will not get Sanders into any top-five running back conversations, but, with a more balanced offensive philosophy being instilled, and more consistent touches, the hope is Sanders can return to his rookie form catching the ball for Philadelphia instead of being thrust onto the field without establishing a rhythm.

With the arrival of Sirianni and his experience in a successfully balanced offense from Indianapolis, in addition to the return of a healthy Brooks, it’s fair to project a career-high 1,000-yard rushing season in 2021.

Playing 17 games this year will help in that regard, too. 

With Hurts looking to establish himself as Philadelphia’s signal-caller, the offense will look to aim on their best playmaker in the backfield to help shoulder the load. Sanders is set for a significant season ahead.

Conor Myles is a contributor to SI.com’s EagleMaven. Reach Conor at ConorMylesSI@gmail.com or Twitter: @ConorMylesNFL

Ed Kracz is the publisher of SI.com’s EagleMaven. Check out the latest Eagles news at www.SI.com/NFL/Eagles and please follow him on Twitter: @kracze.