Entering his second year, Philadelphia Eagles running back Miles Sanders is keeping fantasy analysts up at night. As they toss and turn, they need to know, what’s his ceiling in 2020?
With production so heavily tied to opportunity, volume is king. On The Kist & Solak Show #184 (listen on the media player below or click here), we tackled this question at a surface level. My gut feeling was that Sanders would have somewhere around 20 touches per game. Benjamin Solak felt that number would be significantly lower, especially if they brought in a veteran free agent.
Further examination was required to get a better understanding of Sanders’ ceiling. With that in mind, the following is three factors that could enhance or diminish Sanders’ 2020 output.
The Committee Problem...
Since Doug Pederson’s arrival, the Eagles have always been a running back by committee offense. From 2016-2018, there isn’t a single Eagles’ ball-carrier that logged more than 11.3 touches per game.
That changed with Jordan Howard and Miles Sanders, but not by much. Jordan Howard was seen as the “workhorse”, but he only averaged 12.9 touches per game. Sanders was the spelling fastball, but he only averaged 14.3 touches per game despite becoming the lead back later in the season.
Where things look brighter for Sanders’ potential output is his second half of the season workload. With 113 carries and 31 catches from Weeks 9-17, Sanders checks in with a cool 18 touch average.
It’s not unreasonable to expect that workload to hold in 2020. That average would put him at 288 touches on the year, which would’ve ranked 10th in the league in 2019. Sanders is already the only running back in the Pederson era to eclipse 181 touches and he’s the most athletically gifted back the Eagles have had during his tenure in Philadelphia.
Still, valid questions remain. Would the Eagles prefer to save his wheels by giving Boston Scott an expanded role? How would a veteran addition mess with that formula? Was the Eagles reported interest in JK Dobbins in the 2020 NFL Draft an indication of anything related to the faith they have in Sanders to carry a high workload?
It’s hard to make an argument that Sanders should come off the field, but near 300 touches is uncharted territory for the Eagles backfield under Pederson.
On the show, Solak mentioned he’d prefer not to have Sanders in for short yardage situations, using the down and distance of 3rd & 2 as an example. I’d imagine it’s due to Sanders tendency to bounce instead of taking what’s available to the inside at times and his only adequate play strength to push piles. If the Eagles feel the same way it could certainly eat into Sanders’ touches. However, the results tell a different story.
Looking at just 2nd, 3rd, and 4th downs with 2 or less yards to go, Sanders ranked quite well among running backs and quarterbacks. On those 21 attempts, he moved the chains 16 times (76%) which ranked 9th of 35 qualifiers. It’s worth noting that Carson Wentz went 13-for-16 in those same situations (81%, 6th), likely due to the Eagles sparkling efficiency with QB sneaks. Still, Sanders converted at a higher rate than any other Eagles running back.
Short-yardage situations only got better for Sanders in the back half of the season. From Week 9 and on he moved the chains on 80% of those totes, good for 7th, and his 6.84 yards per carry ranks behind only Lamar Jackson and Saquon Barkley.
Are those results due to a small sample size, or have we been sleeping on short-yardage Sanders?
Passing on Checkdowns...
Pro Football Focus’ Sam Monson recently examined checkdowns for quarterbacks from 2018 to 2019 and this is going to shock you... Carson Wentz doesn’t care for them. Wentz ranked 6th lowest (4.2%) on all downs in that span and 6th lowest (2.6%) on third downs. It’s a microcosm of Wentz’s “all or nothing” mentality that is both frustrating and exhilarating. It could also theoretically lead to less touches for his running backs.
Looking at the Eagles’ running back target share going back to 2016, it’s held pretty stable with the exception of one year. 2016, 2018, and 2019 saw the Eagles’ backs with a target share of 17-19% with 2017 standing out at a low 13%. 2017 is also the year when the Eagles had a solid play from their receivers with all three of their starters playing all 16 games. Compare that to 2019, where the Eagles’ three Week 1 starters only played for 50% of their potential games.
There’s a solid argument that if the Eagles’ receivers and tight ends are as healthy as they were in 2017, the running backs could see a similarly low target share. There are a couple problems with this logic, obviously.
First, how confident are we that aging players like DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery don’t miss significant time? Second, that year the Eagles didn’t have a true receiving back available. Darren Sproles’ season ended in Week 3 and Corey Clement didn’t prove to be a viable and consistent receiving option until the playoffs. If Wendell Smallwood leads your stable of backs in targets (18), can you count that as a true signal?
Compare that to 2020 where Sanders is unquestionably the most explosive receiving back the Eagles have had in years. Even with Wentz’s aforementioned distaste for checkdowns, I can’t see Sanders not being an important component of the Eagles passing attack.
With my original gut feeling of 20 touches a game for Sanders in 2020, I don’t think the evidence above points to that being off-base or unreasonable. Yes, it would be abnormal for an Eagles’ back to join the 300 Club, but Sanders is unquestionably the best back they’ve had in years. To reach that type of volume, he would need roughly 19 touches per game.
I’ve been critical of Sanders in the past, but I don’t hesitate to admit that he showed promising signs of development as a pure runner while fulfilling my projection as a plus receiving back. The better question might be, why wouldn’t Sanders get 19 touches per game?