There is no questioning Mile Sanders is the most talented running back on the Eagles’ roster.
The 25-year-old, 5-foot-11, 211-pound second-round draft choice out of Penn State has shown flashes of how brilliant he can be in his first three seasons with the Eagles. He’s also shown how frustrating he can be, too.
The Eagles are on the verge of becoming NFC contenders again. They rushed for a franchise record NFL-best 2,715 yards last season—with 785 yards coming from quarterback Jalen Hurts, while averaging 4.9 yards a carry, which was fourth in the league. The Eagles arrived there not so much because they could run the ball effectively, but because they had to run the efficiently to win.
At the hub of that offense was Sanders, who missed three games due to an injured ankle and missed another because of a hand injury. He started and played in 12 games.
Sanders will be counted on again to play an important role in the offense, but should he be looking over his shoulders at Kenny Gainwell, who gained 291 yards rushing on 68 attempts, averaging 4.3 yards a carry, quite a dip from Sanders’ 5.5 average, a team-high among running backs.
But there seemed to be a certain underlying theme going on last season when the Eagles were in the red zone. The coaching staff seemed to trust Gainwell and fire hydrant dynamo Boston Scott when inside the 20.
Scott and Gainwell combined to score 13 touchdowns last season. Sanders did not score at all in 2021.
They also seemed to like Gainwell and Scott’s versatility. When Sanders lined up, opposing defenses knew it would most likely be a running play. In successive seasons, Sanders’ target rate has dropped from his rookie season in 2019 from 63, to 52, to 34 last season. Okay, you say, he was hurt for parts of last season. But he started in 11 games as a rookie and his sophomore in the NFL. He started and played in 12 games in 2021. He also has had a penchant to drop passes—and not exactly trust the play that’s called, which may be a reason why Gainwell and Scott throttle through the holes the offensive line creates, while at times Sanders hesitates. Sanders also likes to hit the home run with each touch. When those holes don’t present themselves, he gets zapped in the backfield for losses, or can turn what looks like a three-yard run into a one-yard gain with his reluctance to move forward.
Nick Sirianni liked Gainwell in the slot to create mismatches. In the Eagles’ dreadful 31-15 NFC Divisional playoff loss to Tampa Bay, he was targeted five times and caught each pass for a total of 49 yards and a touchdown. The other Eagles’ playoff TD came from Scott, granted, when the game was well decided.
Can Gainwell threaten Sanders?
Realistically, probably not.
But should Gainwell get the chance to unseat Sanders?
During the three-game stretch Sanders missed due to the ankle injury, the Eagles, who were 2-5 at the time, made a commitment to the run game to compensate for a dubious passing attack. Sanders came back more committed to run north-and-south and finished with a decent season. Will the Eagles see more of that version this season?
Scott is not an every-down back. Gainwell could be. When Gainwell lines up in the backfield, the Eagles have more options since he can run and catch, something history shows the Eagles do not have with Sanders. Gainwell is right now a situational asset, but who knows what he can become given a greater opportunity.
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who has written feature stories for SI.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com, MLB.com, Deadspin and The Philadelphia Daily News. In 2006, he was nominated for an Emmy Award for a special project piece for ESPN.com called “Love at First Beep.” He is most noted for his award-winning ESPN.com feature on high school wrestler A.J. Detwiler in February 2006, which appeared on SportsCenter. In 2015, he was elected president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.