Over the next few weeks, I will be spotlighting a few running backs that I have interest in heading into the 2020 NFL season, starting with Philadelphia Eagles RB Miles Sanders. Many media members and fans alike seem to have their eyes on Sanders too, predicting that he has a breakout year as the team’s undisputed feature back. Any speculation that the offense would continue to deploy a Running-Back-By-Committee approach has been put to rest by both Head Coach Doug Pederson and Assistant Head Coach Duce Staley. Also, consider that General Manager Howie Roseman has never drafted a running back before the 4th round of the draft until he selected Sanders in 2019 as the 53rd overall pick. This front office and coaching staff have invested a good deal in the young RB and believe he is a special talent, so putting him in a featured role shouldn’t be a surprise.
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What does Sanders need to improve on to take that next step in his development and become one of the elite RBs in the NFL? I see 2 key areas of Sanders’ game that need work.
Vision / Mental Processing
One of the biggest areas of concern about Sanders’ game when he was drafted was his vision, mental processing, and decision making behind the line of scrimmage. Many young runners who possess remarkable athletic ability like Sanders does often fall into the trap of relying on that athleticism too much. They believe they can outrun most defenders to any spot, and in college they often do. However, that’s no longer the case once they reach the NFL level. Relying simply on athleticism isn’t enough to be a successful pro player, let alone an elite one.
Sanders’ struggles at the beginning of the 2019 season were well documented. He was the starter for the first 3 weeks but displayed an alarming tendency to bounce runs to the outside instead of running with discipline between the tackles. Then, after fumbling the ball twice against the Detroit Lions, he lost his job to Jordan Howard.
But as the season went on Sanders’ game started to come together a bit, and a mid-season injury to Howard opened the door for him to become the starter once again. By December he was one of the top playmakers the Eagles had on offense. One could even argue that without Sanders the Eagles don’t come away victorious against the Washington [Football Team] in Week 15 and the Dallas Cowboys in Week 16.
But how much better did Sanders get exactly? I went back and studied all his carries from the aforementioned games against Washington and Dallas. I focused on run plays where Sanders exhibited notably good or notably bad vision and decision making, therefore I could see where his mental processing was compared to what I had studied earlier in the season. I left out the games against the New York Giants because he had suffered injuries in both (he did come back into the Week 14 game), and I skipped over the playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks because Carson Wentz and Brandon Brooks were both out. This way no one can use the excuse of “He was playing in a less than ideal situation so you can’t hold that against him too much”.
Sanders still has a good amount he needs to work on in terms of staying disciplined within the run design and not abandoning it too soon. He must also expand his lateral/widescreen vision as he gets caught with “tunnel vision” too often and doesn’t see alternate lanes developing elsewhere. However, he did show notable improvement compared to how he was executing at the beginning of the season. He shows flashes of excellent patience, post-snap paths, and footwork. Doing these things consistently is key.
Some are skeptical as to whether Sanders will actually improve and live up to the lofty expectations set out for him. But while there certainly is no guarantee that he’ll ever be able to, I remain as hopeful as I ever was. Remember, Sanders didn’t get much playing time while he was at Penn State. He sat behind Saquon Barkley in his first freshman and sophomore years before taking over as the starter his junior year. Then he declared for the NFL Draft. It was always going to take time for Sanders to learn how to be a disciplined runner, so this isn’t unexpected.
Sanders is a hard-working kid who believes in himself and is always looking for ways to get better. Also, Coach Staley is one of the best RB coaches in the entire league. I guarantee you that Staley is showing Sanders the same things that I’ve seen on film and they’re both doing everything they can to fix them.
Routes out wide or in the slot
We know how good of a receiver out of the backfield Sanders already is. His explosiveness certainly came in handy with wheel and seam routes down the field. With DeSean Jackson out of the lineup, Sanders was the Eagles’ most explosive weapon in the receiving game. Also, his hands were exceptionally reliable for a rookie as he was guilty of only 3 drops all season. He looked amazingly comfortable catching, showing soft hands with the ability to pluck the ball away from his body and then transition upfield as a runner smoothly.
The next step in Sanders’ development as a receiver would be for him to become a legitimate receiving threat lining up out wide or in the slot of the formation. I charted all his targets from 2019, and all but 6 of them came when he was lined up in the backfield at the snap. And of those 6 targets, 2 of them were screens and 2 of them were passes in the flat. That means out of all the targets Sanders had in 2019, he only ran a route away from the line of scrimmage on a total of 2 of them. Furthermore, those 2 plays came in the same game (Week 3 against the Lions) and on the same possession (beginning of the 1st quarter).
I believe Sanders has the potential to be the type of weapon that Marshall Faulk and Brian Westbrook were, and Christian McCaffrey is now. Those players were not only receiving threats out of the backfield but could also line up as the X, Z, or Y and run routes like an actual wide receiver. Doing so added another dimension to their game and made them an even more dangerous mismatch for defenses to account for. So, if he wants to be in the same conversation as those guys then Sanders must show that he’s capable of running routes like a WR too, not just a RB. And in doing so, not only will he take his game to another level, but he’ll also open up more options for the Eagles’ offense entirely.
The Eagles added a lot of speed to their offense this offseason in the hopes of making it more dynamic. But outside of Carson Wentz, the biggest difference-maker could end up being Miles Sanders. What he can potentially bring in both the running game and receiving game has tremendous value if he can reach that potential. The spotlight is all on Sanders now to take his game to that next level.