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June 11, 2019

Duce Staley likes what he's seen from new Eagles RBs Miles Sanders and Jordan Howard

In a suddenly crowded backfield, the Birds' running backs coach plans to spread the ball around — and doesn't see that being a problem

Eagles NFL

By the time the Eagles reached the playoffs last season, they were a Jackson Browne song. 

Following season-ending injuries to Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement, as well as dealing with other injuries to running backs like Josh Adams and Darren Sproles at various points throughout the year, the Eagles were truly running on empty. It's how Wendell Smallwood and Adams wound up leading the team in rushing for 2018. And it's likely why the Eagles went out and loaded up on running backs this offseason. 

Now, thanks to their trade for Jordan Howard and the decision to take Penn State's Miles Sanders in the second round of the draft, one of the two guys who were carrying the load for the Eagles last year, Adams and Smallwood, will likely be sent packing before Week 1 of the 2019 season arrives. 

[UPDATE: Miles Sanders has been ruled out of minicamp with a hamstring injury, head coach Doug Pederson announced on Tuesday.]

Currently, the Eagles have a deep roster of running backs battling for just a handful of spots. But it's becoming abundantly clear that Sanders, Howard and Clement will get the bulk of work out of the backfield, while Adams, Smallwood, Boston Scott and others compete for the last one or two spots on the roster. 

Here's a look at the current depth chart, according to our own Jimmy Kempski:

1Jordan Howard
2Miles Sanders (R)
3Corey Clement
4Wendell Smallwood
5Josh Adams
6Boston Scott
7Donnel Pumphrey


It's a crowded running back room for sure, but, needless to say, Duce Staley doesn't see that being a problem.

"[It's] not complicated," Staley, the Eagles running backs coach, said on Monday. "Any time you have competition in a room those guys embrace it. I love it being a coach, because you've got a lot of guys that got to keep it turned on, as we say. So, they're all competing against one another. It's all positive. Good energy in the room."

It's been a revolving door of running backs ever since LeSean McCoy was traded to the Bills, so much so that the Eagles haven't had the same leading rusher in back-to-back seasons since McCoy left, a trend that's likely to continue this year with last year's leading rusher, Adams, fighting just to make the roster. But no matter how the roster battle shakes out, Staley expects the Eagles to spread the carries around and rotate running backs in and out, much like he's done in the past.

"We haven't had that one guy since Shady [McCoy]," said Staley. "And, with the type of backfield we have now, we're going to share the ball. And these guys understand that... If you're going out there, and your number is called, you just go out there and do the best you can during that play. Don't worry about the course of game or how often your number is going to be called. Just take advantage of your number being called during that time."

So how does Staley sell that to players? Well, he doesn't envision it being all that difficult. 

For starters, he can speak from experience, as he was part of a three-headed monster of a backfield that also included Brian Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter. Additionally, he can point to the Eagles' success when sharing the ball over the last two seasons, including their Super Bowl winning season. 

"These guys understand," Staley said confidently, while also laughing off the irony of the situation, given that he always wanted to be the guy with the ball throughout his career. "Like I said, it's something we've been doing around here for a while, and these younger guys coming in, they know we share the ball, because they've seen a lot of these guys play, from Wendell, Corey, Josh, and the names go on. So, when you go back and look at the year we won [the Super Bowl], those guys were sharing the ball, and they bought in to it. 

"Of course, you want a guy who says, 'I want the ball all the time.' You want that guy in your room because that's where the competition comes from, because now you get everything out of him on every play."

How many running backs the Eagles ultimately wind up keeping — and using — remains to be seen, but the team more or less knows what it's getting from the returning running backs. However, it's the two newcomers, Sanders and Howard, who will likely be splitting the lion's share of carries this season, especially with Clement still working his way back from a season-ending knee injury. 

And, at least so far, the returns have been good for Staley's newest toys. Here's a look at what Staley had to say about those two during his session with the media prior to minicamp... 


How is Miles Sanders as a pass catcher?

"I think he's good. I think he's good. I think that when you talk to those guys, they'll all tell you that they can continue to get better. And you want those guys to think that way and be humble, especially when it comes to catching the ball, and understand where to be — that's one of my things, as far as route-running. You've got to understand the offense and understand the progression of the offense, which is very important. And for those two guys to come in and learn that rather quickly, I'm very pleased."

You had to be happy that they took a guy early in the draft (Sanders):

"Oh, yeah, I'm super happy about that. I'm very happy and I know all you guys getting to be able to see him at Penn State, some of the things he did there that were special, and being able to play behind another special guy (Saquon Barkley) and learn from him. So I'm happy."

Howie said he popped into your office the Friday before Sanders was picked and you guys had a convo about whether he would be available. 

"He popped in and we had a conversation, exactly what he told you, and we didn't think he was going to be there — I didn't, anyway — that he was going to be available. I was very surprised that he was. And I think [the pick] was a no-brainer."

Is he behind at all having missed some of the OTAs with the hamstring injury? Is it significant?

"I think it's significant for any player that misses time, just as far as getting out there and learning their teammates and being able to understand how they play the game and how they think. But as far as playbook-wise, no. He knows the playbook. We get a chance to have extra meeting time, which I enjoy. So he's able to come in and I'm able to quiz him, and I'm able to take him through different games, film, etc. So that part of it, no, he's cool."

You mentioned Sanders having to sit behind Barkley at Penn St. What did you learn from talking to his coaches or talking to him about what that was like?

"The coaches speak very highly of him, of course, and the type of gentleman, young man he is. I didn't expect anything different once I learned about him sitting behind Saquon — not actually sitting behind him, I guess he kind of lost his job because he was there first if I'm not mistaken. 

"You know, we all go through certain things in life, but it's all about how you bounce back. So that kid, of course, being highly recruited coming out of high school, a lot of colleges wanted him. Saquon came in — we all know Saquon is a beast. He came in and was able to take the position. Now, with the options today, you've got a chance to transfer, you can be mad, you can be disgruntled. No, he didn't [do that]. He just went to work and it showed what type of person he is."

Did you get to see any of Miles on the field during OTAs/minicamp? What stood out in person?

"[His skills] transferred right over. Once again, going back and watching the film at Penn State, being able to have something you can kind of lean on and go back and say, 'OK, this is the same guy, without a doubt,' right then and there it transferred over. I'll tell you, he's going to be special."


Overall thoughts on Jordan Howard:

"Oh, yeah. He's been good; he's been real good. He came in, went straight to work, and that's what you want. He's a pro and we knew that kind of going after him a little bit, that he was a pro, so he came in and went straight to work. It's hard to get three words out of him — but if you get three words out of him, you're doing good — so I'm very pleased with him."

How has Howard looked catching passes, which was an issue in Chicago?

"I never knew [that was an issue]. I hear it now, of course, about the pass-catching ability, but I never knew that. He came out and has been catching the ball well. And, of course, once again not to be redundant, but in order to catch the ball well, you've got to know exactly what you're doing. He knows about the routs, he knows about the protections, and he's going out there and he's snagging the ball up."

What types of runs are best for Howard?

"We'll see. All that comes when you put the pads on. We can sit here and talk about these guys out here in gym shorts, but it doesn't really matter until we get a little  contact going and get the pads on and pretty much talk about that identity as an offense. 

"But I see a guy who can impose his will. I see a guy who can make a guy miss. I see a guy...that can catch the ball out of the backfield. So he brings a lot of different things to the table."

The Eagles will be back on the field Tuesday afternoon for their first of three minicamp practices. We'll have more updates after the workout. 

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