July 31, 2020
Duce Staley knows what it's like to be a feature back in the NFL. He also knows what it's like to be part of a backfield-by-committee. During his decade as a running back in the NFL, Staley has been both, and knows the rigors, both physically and mentally, of both sides of that coin. It's part of what's made him successful as the Eagles' running backs coach, and it's why he's among the most qualified people to discuss the role of second-year running back Miles Sanders moving forward.
Last season, Sanders started the year second on the depth chart and found himself splitting carries with Jordan Howard. But after Howard went down with an injury, Sanders showed that he has the skills, even as a rookie, to be the feature back on a playoff team. And that's exactly what Staley and the Eagles are planning for Sanders in Year 2.
“I’m excited about Miles,” Staley told reporters Friday. “I’m excited about him handling the full load. I don’t see Miles as a guy you have to monitor his touches — 15 here, maybe 15 rushes, five passes — no, I don’t see him that way.
"I think you put him in and you let him go.”
The trend in recent years has been for teams to try to lessen the workload for their top running backs in order to preserve their careers and avoid them flaming out before hitting their late 20s, but with a young running back in Sanders and no established veteran behind him, it appears the Birds are ready to unleash Sanders as their feature back. Last year, Sanders finished with 818 rushing yards, 509 receiving yards and six total touchdowns. His 1,317 yards from scrimmage led all NFL rookies.
Of course, if Sanders is indeed as good as he appeared in the second half of his rookie season — and there's every reason to believe he is — the Eagles will certainly want to avoid overusing him in Year 2. But it's also worth noting that even for a young running back, Sanders has very little wear on his tires, as he only carried the ball more than 50 times in just one of his three seasons at Penn State (220 in 2018) and finished with just over 300 total touches for his collegiate career. Last season, Sanders finished with 229 total touches (179 rushes) and had more than 20 in a game just three times.
Compare that to the other young running backs in the NFC East — both of whom have been their respective team's feature back since Day 1 — and you can see how big of a difference that really makes. After compiling 773 total touches in three seasons at Penn State, Saquon Barkley racked up 352 touches in his rookie season with the Giants (2018) before an injury in Year 2 caused his numbers to take a massive hit. Ezekiel Elliot, meanwhile, racked up 660 total touches over three seasons at Ohio State before getting another 354 touches in his rookie season (and even more in subsequent seasons).
So, for a quick side-by-side look, here are all three of their total touches through three college seasons and their rookie year in the NFL:
As you can see, the Eagles and Sanders are already in a good spot in terms of preserving his health, but there's now obviously reason to believe that Staley and head coach Doug Pederson are going to use Sanders quite a bit more in 2020. So how many carries would be enough? And how many would be too many? That's the answer Eagles fans —and eager fantasy football owners — want answered.
Well, for starters, it depends on what types of touches Sanders will be getting. We already know the Eagles like to use him in the passing game — he was the team's third leading receiver last season behind Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert — and those touches take much less of a toll than taking a handoff up the middle. Furthermore, as Staley pointed out on Friday, Sanders' shiftiness means he's taking less direct hits, which should also help his longevity.
"I don’t think you have to be careful with (Sanders) because he’s one of the guys that it’s hard to get a hit on," Staley said, according to NBC Sports Philadelphia. "I think you’ve got to be careful with the guys that can’t make people miss. So if you put a big workload on those types of guys — this is a violent league and injuries can happen at any time — but if you’ve got a guy who can make people miss and is kind of special, like Miles, the injury percentage goes down. So I think he can go out there and he can handle that part of it."
The Eagles' belief in Sanders is part of the reason why the team has yet to add a veteran running back to their roster. Currently, they have Corey Clement and Boston Scott, both 25, as the two oldest backs in the room, followed by Sanders, 23, and Elijah Holyfield, 22, who was signed off the Panthers practice squad late last year. Beyond that, they have a pair of undrafted rookies in Adrian Killins Jr. and Mike Warren.
The Eagles can still make an addition at the position, as Devonta Freeman and others remain unsigned, but Staley gave a vote of confidence to his current crop of running backs on Friday.
RB coach Duce Staley on his group: “I’m very happy with my room and everybody’s role” when asked if he feels the need to add a veteran RB to the roster. #FlyEaglesFly— Dave Spadaro (@EaglesInsider) July 31, 2020
Whether or not the Eagles actually decide to add some depth once they see all their players on the field at the same time remains to be seen, but either way, this is all lining up for a big season for Sanders, who could be the Eagles first true lead back since Doug Pederson took over.
Here's more from Brandon Gowton of Bleeding Green Nation, who wrote this before Staley's latest comments.
Sanders projects to be the Eagles’ most featured running back since the Doug Pederson era began in 2016. Now, this isn’t to suggest that he’ll regularly be logging 20 carries per game. First of all, only Derrick Henry made it over that mark last year (and just barely at 20.2). Secondly, we know the Eagles have been wont to rotate their backs.
But unlike in years past, Sanders is the guy. Contrast the Eagles’ current backfield setup to the configuations since Pederson arrived:
2016 — Ryan Mathews (11.9 attempts per game), Darren Sproles (6.3), Wendell Smallwood (5.9)
2017 — LeGarrette Blount (10.8), Jay Ajayi (10), Corey Clement (4.6)
2018 — Josh Adams (8.6), Corey Clement (6.2), Wendell Smallwood (5.4)
2019 — Jordan Howard (11.9), Miles Sanders (11.2), Boston Scott (5.5)
ESPN’s Mike Clay projects Sanders to log around 17.4 carries per game. I was thinking Sanders will at least be around the 15 mark. Really, he’s too good not for the Eagles to get the ball into his hands. [bleedinggreennation.com]
That last point is the most important here. Sure, there's something to be said about preserving a running back's health and trying to extend his career as long as possible, but in Year 1 Sanders proved he's too good not to have the ball in his hands. And given his relatively fresh legs, even compared to other running backs at his same age, now is the time for the Eagles to let Sanders run.
And if they stay true to their word and "put him in and let him go," there's a strong chance Sanders joins an exclusive club of Eagles running backs, one that includes his current position coach. Here's more from Reuben Frank of NBC Sports Philadelphia:
What are we looking at here? Something like 15 or 16 carries and four or five catches gets Sanders to 20 touches per game.
So don’t be surprised if Sanders gets into the 320-touch range if there is a full NFL season. Only five running backs in franchise history have had 320 touches - Wilbert Montgomery twice, Ricky Watters three straight years, Duce himself three times, Brian Westbrook once and LeSean McCoy three times.
That’s the company Sanders needs to be in. [nbcsports.com]
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