Is Miles Sanders a Franchise Back?
While Miles Sanders has had a strong start to his career in Philly, leading the Eagles in rushing and scrimmage yards over each of the last two seasons, is he a true franchise back? To answer this question, we have to go back five years in time, when Sanders first arrived at Penn State.
Miles Sanders arrived at Penn State as a five star and the highest ranked running back in the country, but the Nittany Lions already had the freshman phenom Saquon Barkley, who ran for over 1,000 yards as a true freshman. In Sanders' first two seasons at Penn State, he only touched the ball 64 times for 429 yards, but was efficient with 6.7 yards per touch. With Barkley gone to the NFL in 2018, the path was paved for Sanders to become the lead back. As a junior, Sanders ran the ball 220 times for 1,274 yards, while averaging an efficient 5.8 yards per carry. He also scored nine times on the ground as a junior, and he totaled 139 yards though the air on 24 catches in his final season as a Nittany Lion.
After declaring for the 2019 NFL Draft, many were skeptical if Sanders could become a three-down back and carry a full workload in the NFL, as he was only a one year starter in college. Scouts were also concerned with Sanders' running style, as he relied on running past and around people, but did not show much ability to run through the tackles in college, which is extremely concerning for NFL scouts. With all the uncertainty of how Sanders' game would translate to the NFL, the Eagles still picked him in the second round at pick 52, bringing the Pittsburgh native to Philly.
As a rookie In Philadelphia, Sanders was part of a running back committee with Jordan Howard to start the season, and Sanders carried the ball at least 10 times in each of the team's first four games, but soon saw his carries disappear as he was struggling with ball security, pass protection, and efficiency on the ground. Sanders was drafted to be an outside zone rusher, but he was most efficient running through the tackles in the team's first four games. Veteran Jordan Howard was the team's power back that ran through the tackles, and that forced Sanders to the bench. Sanders found his way onto the field as a gadget guy in other ways though, as had 305 yards receiving in the team's first nine games, which was double what he had in 13 games as the starter at Penn State. After the bye, Sanders became the feature back with the Howard injury, as he ran for just under 500 yards in the team's final seven games.
As a sophomore, Sanders had an interesting season to say the least. In 12 games, he ran the ball 164 times, which was only 15 less carries than he had in 16 games as a rookie, but he ran for 49 more yards in four less games. Sanders had a massive boost in yards per-game and yards per-carry from his first to second year in the league, as he raised his yards per-game by 21.2 and his yards per-carry by 0.7. However, he seemingly forgot how to catch the football in the 2020 season.
As a rookie, Sanders had an extremely productive season through the air, catching 50 passes for 509 yards and three touchdowns with only three drops, finishing the season with a passer rating of 116.2 when targeted, becoming considered one of the best young receiving backs in the game. However, as a sophomore in the NFL, Sanders caught 28 of his 52 targets for 197 yards and had no touchdowns. To make matters worse, Sanders dropped seven passes in 12 games, and had a passer rating of 46.7 when targeted, which is at the bottom of the league.
When you take a look at Sanders' college and NFL career as a whole, he has only one full season as a workhorse, with only five games in the NFL with over 20 touches, and 2 games with over 20 carries. Sanders has also had numerous nagging injuries that have been lingering throughout his NFL career, which is concerning for a young back, because it raises the question of their wear and tear with a full workload. The Eagles' rookie Head Coach Nick Sirianni has a history of playing a running back-by-committee in his three years as offensive coordinator in Indianapolis, and the Eagles seem to be trending in that direction this year with the additions of Kerryon Johnson and Kenneth Gainwell. It is extremely likely Sanders remains the team's feature back, but with ball security and drop problems throughout camp, the 24 year old is likely to not get the volume of touches many Eagles fans want him to get.
Taking a look into the future, Sanders only has two years left on his contract before he hits free agency, and is already 24 years of age. If he does not break out within the next two years and prove as the teams lead back, look for the Eagles to move on from him. Even if Sanders does prove to be a franchise back over the next two seasons, it would be an extremely risky decision to sign a then 26 year old back to a long term contract.