Sanders’ Strange Situation – Is it a debate on whether or not the Eagles should re-sign the 3rd-year back?

I’m writing this piece 2 days after the Eagles 27-17 victory over the Washington Football Team. In the win, Miles Sanders rushed for 131 yards on 18 carries (around 7.3 yards per carry). The tandem of Howard and Sanders continued to work well.

But Sanders has had a less than stellar 2021 season with 0 touchdowns on the season at the time of writing this, an unsatisfactory 709 total rushing yards and a season plagued with injury.

In what’s supposed to be Sanders’ peak year during his rookie contract, you can’t help but feel slightly underwhelmed. There are of course, a ton of factors I have neglected to mention that have contributed to this.

Nick Sirianni elected to pass at one of the highest rates in the league then pivoted to a run heavy system late in the season while Sanders was on the sideline dealing with a lower body injury. The entirety of the lackluster offense displayed by Philadelphia through the first 7 weeks of the season when Sanders was healthy is another element.

But, this is alarming for me, Sanders is a second-round pick and as such, his output will be scrutinized as he enters the most important year of his career.

People still argue about the merits of 1st/2nd round pick RBs 5 years after their rookie contract have ended and the Eagles do have to face a big decision:

Do you pay Sanders at the end of next year? If so, how much?

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know I put up a small poll asking this very question and the feedback was pretty telling.

Not a huge number of respondents and I’m not using it as evidence, but I honestly feel a similar way to those who participated. The dialogue around Sanders as the year has gone on has been remarkably binary – a lot of people believe he’s under-used and under-featured in the Eagles run game.

It’s no secret that running backs’ lifespans in the NFL have dramatically decreased in recent years, with many of them not staying with the team that drafted them.

But what’s went wrong for Sanders under Sirianni? Sirianni left Indianapolis where his running back room consisted of 2021 MVP frontrunner Jonathan Taylor and Indianapolis folk hero Nyheim Hines. This caused a lot of fans to believe Sanders would be a pivotal piece in Sirianni’s scheme, somewhat akin to Taylor.

Yet, that has not been the case. The crux of the problem, from my point of view, is down to Sanders’ style as a running back; while this comparison is relatively lazy, Saquon Barkley has also struggled a lot this season with similar issues.

Simply put, Sanders and Barkley would rather run for 15 yards once in five plays than get two yards per play and just charge through blocks into defensive lines/linebackers. Of course, Barkley and Sanders do still do the latter and I have made this seem binary, I think it’s a big part of Sirianni’s offense.

And any time a running back can break a run for a huge gain it most definitely isn’t a negative, but there’s a fine line between knowing when to break one and just take what the defense is giving you.

Sirianni is a big believer in the style of rushing which I like to call: “the step approach.” Where the running backs aren’t expected to get explosive plays/first downs unless it’s a short yardage situation.

The running back isn’t expected to be explosive, just productive. This is against Sanders’ play style, where he had multiple big breakaway-type runs (any run that goes for more than 15 yards) in 2020 under Doug Pederson, but almost minimal under Sirianni in comparison.

Whilst that type of play-style is always valuable in a running back, it’s very critical to know that it’s also detrimental when a player starts to not perform.

The above video is a breakdown on the issues with Saquon Barkley by the wonderful Billy Stephens on YouTube, and a lot of it transcribes to Barkley’s former Penn State backfield mate, Miles Sanders.

There are many plays where it’s clear Sanders is looking for big yardage gains outside rather than sticking to Sirianni’s script and going for the 2-5 yards through the middle which could set up a 2nd & short.

This is personally why I think the Eagles should try to move off from Sanders and should even considering trading him away and grabbing a power-based running back in free agency or in the draft.

This does feel like an attack on Miles Sanders, and I don’t want it to be. I personally think Howie Roseman will try to keep Sanders as best he can. However, it’s hard to ignore the situation New York and Dallas are going through with the likes of Barkley and Elliott and the diminishing returns those backs have given whilst tying up big money in a high injury risk position.

Of course, it comes down to how much Sanders wants and the amount Roseman would want to pay for him––but it’s no secret there are running backs around the league in worse run systems that get similar amounts of production, and the lack of touchdowns this season from Sanders is a big concern. Elijah Mitchell, Damien Harris, James Connor, Tony Pollard and Darrell Henderson Jr. are all amassing similar amounts of production this season despite being later draft picks.

The elephant in the room is starting to become more and more noticeable every game week, and the closer that rookie contract reaches it’s end, the debate on whether to extend Sanders or let him walk becomes feasible.

There is no debating it, Sanders is talented. He’s a big play threat every time he touches the ball, however, there is a fine line between knowing when to break one and when to take the simpler gain. Sanders vision and decisiveness as a runner is top tier, however, at the same time (as outlined in this piece) there are also drawbacks that balance out Sanders potential appeal.

Sanders has a big year coming up next season and he may be able to finish this season with back-to-back 100 yards rushing with a couple of touchdowns. But big picture, Sanders must get into the mindset that not every run needs to result in a first down or touchdown. If Sanders can stay healthy and enter the elite running back bracket, it’ll do wonders for him.

Photo Credit: Mitchell Leff – Getty Images

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