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Miles Sanders has a long way to go

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And it might be a while before the game slows down for him...

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Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

It would be foolish to call Miles Sanders a bust four games into his rookie season. That needed to be clarified at the top for obvious, selfish reasons. It would also be foolish to guarantee that the required development will happen and happen within the next few weeks. That’s an unfair expectation not based in reality.

When the Philadelphia Eagles drafted Sanders with the 53rd overall selection in the 2019 NFL Draft, expectations and hope all came with it. With a bevy of second round success stories from recently drafted running backs, it wasn’t crazy to think that Sanders could step right in and be the answer. The space player looked great in space during training camp too, perhaps creating a mirage of his game.

After seeing the Eagles churn through running backs over the years, many hoped Sanders would be the one who was promised. The Eagles have gotten solid production for committees before, but what if the Eagles could hit on one back that ended the need for a rotation. Essentially, what if there was one back to rule them all?

Through four weeks of the 2019 NFL season, it’s not clear if Miles Sanders is the Philadelphia version of Azor Ahai. To this point, he’s rushed for 178 yards and a 4.0 yards per carry average. His 6 receptions for 84 yards have come on a nice wheel route, a blown coverage, and some late half check downs. That’s not exactly setting the world on fire.

Looking at Sanders’ analytics, they paint a pretty dreary picture. These are from Football Outsiders and are out of backs with at least 32 carries…

(for full explanations on these metrics, click here)

DYAR: 34th of 36

YAR: 36th of 36

DVOA: 35th of 36

VOA: 36th of 36

Success Rate: 26th of 36

Basically, from an analytical perspective, the first quarter of the season for Sanders has been booty cheeks. The difference between his yards and “effective yards” is the 2nd worst in the league, only behind Leonard Fournette. This stat suggests that his actual yards are of lower quality and he isn’t playing up to the level of that production.

The film backs it up, and film is how Pro Football Focus arrives at their grades, which while not gospel typically serve as a solid baseline. Among running backs, Sanders ranks 50th of 52 in overall grade and dead last in rushing grade. This ranks much lower than other rookies like Josh Jacobs, Tony Pollard, Alexander Mattison, and David Montgomery. Running back is the easiest position in the league from a production standpoint.

When Sports Info Solutions breaks down Miles Sanders’ film, they see a back that has only broken 13.3% of attempted tackles, 24th of 36 qualifiers. Jordan Howard checks in slightly worse at 10%, which means that this backfield may be a “get what you block for by committee”.

You might not buy into analytics, but the Eagles do. When three different major reporting companies all point to poor performance from Sanders, it’s hard to ignore.

Before getting into what I saw from the film, it is of note that the Eagles run blocking has been a rollercoaster this year. PFF has all but one starting lineman with positive run blocking grades, but Football Outsiders’ had the Eagles’ much worse in their run blocking metrics before Week 4. Still, they rank 12th in adjusted line yards for the year.

Week 4 was their best week as a cohesive unit and that was evidence by the excellent push created and holes opened for the backs. Coincidentally, it was the Eagles’ backfields best night. They totaled 176 yards on 33 carries while adding two touchdowns.

That success is an encouraging sign, one tempered by the reality that the Packers made an inexplicable, conscious decision to get bullied in the run game by playing in nickel or dime packages for 95% of their snaps. Meanwhile the Eagles had at least two tight ends or six offensive linemen on the field for 46% of their plays.

Take the above play for example. This is the Eagles’ staple “Wham” concept. The Packers have one linebacker on the field while the Eagles rock with two tight ends. Isaac Seumalo let’s Dean Lowry (#94) free into the backfield to get ear-holed by Dallas Goedert. Jason Peters tosses safety Adrian Amos to the ground.

This isn’t a read for Sanders. This is simply him running the “B-gap rail”. He doesn’t have to think on this gap concept of which the Eagles ran more of against the Packers. He just needs light a match off Goedert’s butt and run through the smoke. Once he’s at the third level, Sanders’ fails to make rookie safety Darnell Savage Jr. miss, which is a reoccurring problem for the entire Eagles’ backfield.

This 30-yard run was the longest of his young career and he didn’t have to do much. Sure, the burst is impressive. My guess is we’ve seen so much of Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount, Josh Adams, and Wendell Smallwood in the past few years that an above average giddy-up looks elite.

Sanders absolutely has the burst to fit through colliding pursuit angles that the aforementioned backs can’t. He also possesses the ability to chain powerful cuts together at speed. For this reason I think there’s reason for optimism concerning his lack of broken tackles against defensive backs to this point. Ultimately, I don’t think that area will be a problem for him. That’s a trait-based projection based on his college film, but I’m confident that his elusiveness will eventually shine through.

The problem for Sanders is projecting him beyond what we’ve seen into what we haven’t seen. That includes his poor finishing ability, where Howard is the much stronger back in dealing with contact. That includes his pass blocking, which has shown signs of improvement from a mental perspective but lack in spatial awareness and technique. It includes his fumbling issue, where he put it on the ground an abysmal 2.3 times per 100 carries.

The projection of the unknown also includes Sanders’ mental processing, which paired with his vision and decision-making present a problem.

What we know from Sanders’ college film is he was very often looking to bounce early. That works at the collegiate level to an extent. In the NFL, unless you’re an elite athlete it’ll produce more bust than boom and even then it’s an uphill climb. We’ve seen more of the same in his rookie campaign. Mike Groh mentioned it as a point of emphasis coming into Week 4. To a degree it got cleaned up, but at the expense of Sanders thinking through his runs and sapping his ability to weave through traffic. The mental wheels were turning hard and the game is too fast.

Once the game slows down, Sanders will likely be better. That’ll help him set up second level defenders while behind the line of scrimmage which will achieve more favorable contact angles once he’s there. Whether his vision will allow for that to shine is another story entirely.

For the “he’s just a rookie” crowd, Sanders does remind me of Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon in a way. Mixon had a different, more patient play style in college, but was often found pressing to quickly as a rookie. This was in part due to the Bengals’ atrocious run blocking. As the season wore on, Mixon ditched the idea of setting up his blocks and opted to make it happen on his own. Either way he was going to fail and many wrote him off after averaging 3.5 yards per attempt.

After evaluating his film, I graded him much higher than others. Fast-forward to 2018 and with improved run blocking in front of him, Mixon matures as a runner and puts together a solid year with 5.0 yards per attempt over 1,171 total yards. In 2019, the Bengals rank 31st in adjusted line yards and Mixon is 3.2 yards per carry. I’ll bet he gets written off again for all the wrong reasons.

The Eagles should continue to work Sanders in a rotation that is likely always going to be a committee. Whoever gets a certain snap share should be more focused on the game-plan of the week and situational play-calls suited to the strengths of their diverse backfield. For Sanders, he should continue to see an uptick in gap schemes that tell him exactly where to be. If the blocking holds up, it will allow him to use his best assets as a runner in his burst and his lateral agility. Take the thinking out of it for Sanders and you may see a different back in the coming weeks.

The Eagles are known as a zone running team but the reality is, they have a fantastic variety of run schemes. This is especially true when they utilize two tight ends or six offensive linemen. They can make this work for Sanders while the game gradually slows down. The rest is up to Sanders.

The most encouraging sign for Sanders, other than his use in the kick return game, has been his utilization as a receiver. While limited, he’s show that he can flat out fly past linebackers down the field. We saw this in Week 3 from a wheel route out of the backfield.

We didn’t get to see much of that from Sanders in college, but the flashes are promising. If he can take the next step and show he can hurt defenses on option routes, Sanders will add a new element to the Eagles offense. Think of the New Orleans Saints and how they run their backside isolation receiver deep with Alvin Kamara running options underneath. For a team that loves to run 3x1 sets and work the backside like the Eagles, it would be a boon. He’s perfectly capable from an athletic standpoint, but there’s work to be done.

Ultimately, there’s a lot of unknown with Sanders. Inexperience can explain many of the flaws but that won’t guarantee a linear, positive development arc for the future. It’s discouraging that he’s being outplayed by the other rookies around him because despite the excuses, running back is the easiest position in the NFL to come in and produce from right away.

It might be a while before we see consistent output from Sanders, but the Eagles’ organization and fan base should and will be patient with him.

(For a continually updated thread on all of Sanders’ meaningful snaps, click here.)