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August 05, 2019

Will Miles Sanders ultimately be the Eagles' starting running back this season?

It's starting to look like that could happen sooner rather than later...

Eagles NFL
Miles-Sanders_052819_usat Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia Eagles running back Miles Sanders.

Last season, with his running backs dropping like flies in the regular season, Duce Staley had his work cut out for him trying to get the best from unheralded backs such as Josh Adams and Wendell Smallwood. This time around, the Eagles running back coach might have another problem on his hand — the exact opposite one he faced last year.

This offseason, the Eagles moved on from Jay Ajayi, who remains a free agent. But they also traded for former Bears running back Jordan Howard, drafted Penn State product Miles Sanders in the second round, re-signed Darren Sproles, who is back from an injury that caused him to miss most of the 2018 season, and recently got Super Bowl hero Corey Clement back from a season-ending knee injury he suffered last year. 

That could mean the guys who led the team in yards last year — Adams and Smallwood — will be out of jobs by the time the preseason comes to an end. It also means Staley, who sets the running back rotation during Eagles games, will have a lot of mouths to feed. 

But as the former Eagles running back said earlier in the summer, that doesn't bother him one bit.

"[It's] not complicated," he said back during minicamp. "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."

Now, nearly two months after that statement, the battle for the No. 1 running back is heating up. 

Coming out of the draft, the general thinking was that Howard would be the team's top rusher to begin the season, with Sanders getting plenty of work in relief — after all, the Eagles have always been a running-back-by-committee team under Pederson (and Staley). But it's looking more and more like Sanders might have the ability to take over Howard on the depth chart and earn the role of the lead running back. 

Both players had concerns coming into their first season in Philly. For Sanders, it was in the passing game, both when it came to blocking and catching passes. There were also concerns about his abilities to hold on to the ball, something Staley said he was working on with Sanders. For Howard, there were also questions about his pass-catching abilities, as it's not something he was generally asked to do in Chicago. (It's also worth noting that the other two running backs expected to make the roster, Sproles and Clement, have already proven themselves as dangerous receiving threats out of the backfield.)

While each player has done his share to quiet doubters so far during training camp, Sanders, who missed nearly all of minicamp with a hamstring injury, has been showing a bit more flash through the first 10 days. 

Here's a look at what our own Jimmy Kempski wrote on Monday morning in regards to Sanders' fantasy value — one of the few areas where it really matters whether he's the No. 1 or No. 2 running back — and his likely roles on the offense in 2019:

Sanders is clearly the best running back on the team, and in my view, it's not even close. Additionally, coming out of college, there were concerns about his pass protection and receiving abilities, but he has been good enough in both areas during his rookie training camp that those potential issues won't keep him off the field. Sanders should play early and often, but will RB coach Duce Staley (who controls the RB rotation) fall too much in love with putting Darren Sproles on the field, as he has done in the past? 

The Eagles will always take a committee approach to some degree, but the bet here is that Sanders shows that he is clearly the best running back on the team in actual games, and it's only a matter of time before he's starting and making plays.

Needless to say, Jimmy thinks you should "buy" on Sanders.

The Eagles rookie running back also had the biggest highlight of the team's only open practice of the summer on Sunday night, when he made a really nice jump cut to break free for a touchdown run. In his notes from last night's practice, Kempski had the following to say about Sanders: "He's the best running back on the team. Period. And it isn't close. Duce Staley needs to get him on the field early and often. Let him eat."

And Jimmy isn't the only media member high on Sanders following the first week and a half of camp. 

But wait, there's more. In PhillyVoice's anonymous stock up/stock down poll of various media members, seven of the 30 people surveyed voted for Sanders as the guy whose stock has risen the most. The only player with more was cornerback Sidney Jones (10). 

While that's all great, it's ultimately going to come down to what the coaches think. And on Monday, offensive coordinator Mike Groh was asked about the rookie's development, especially in those two potential problem areas, pass protection and ball security.

"Miles is doing a great job every day," Groh said. "He's coming out and knows what we want to get better at each and every day. He's really just kind of started, being able to get out there and be involved in the huddle, and be part of the play call, get out, be able to decipher what the defense is doing, react to it. We think that he's really making good progress."

If Sanders winds up winning the starting job, however, it won't be from a lack of competition. Groh also praised Howard for his development as both a receiver and blocker, but as Sanders has already shown that he's the more explosive runner of the two, if he can simply equal Howard in those other departments, the job is his to lose. Either way, the healthy battle between Sanders and Howard can only benefit both players as they try to round out their games heading into Year 1 with the Eagles. 

We'll get our first look at Sanders in live NFL action on Thursday night when the Eagles host the Titans, but if he's able to carry over his training camp performance into an actual game, it would go a long way to solidifying his position atop the Eagles depth chart at running back. 

But as of right now, it's looking like Sanders' job to lose. 


Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin

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