Sanders must make impact in passing game for Eagles

Eliot Shorr-Parks
May 01, 2019 - 7:39 am

Prior to the 2019 NFL Draft, the Eagles had not drafted a running back in the first two rounds since 2009. That pick was of course the franchise’s all-time leading rusher, LeSean McCoy. 

So fair or not, expectations are high Penn State running back Miles Sanders. It isn’t often that top personnel executive Howie Roseman uses a premium asset on a running back. He clearly felt Sanders was the expectation. 

“He reminded us of some other players we've had around here,” Roseman said of Sanders. 

As a runner, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic about Sanders. He has good vision, is patient and with only 299 touches in college, has fresher legs than most running backs do coming out of college. 

To have the kind of impact the Eagles need Sanders to make in order to justify a second-round pick, however, he is going to need to be a factor in the passing game as well. That was certainly the case with McCoy and Brian Westbrook, the players Roseman was likely referencing. All of the great running backs in the NFL are a threat out of the backfield.

There is less reason to be optimistic about Sanders’ ability to do that. 

Sanders had 34 targets last season at Penn State, which was 23rd in the FBS among running backs, per Sports Info Solutions. So although 34 targets isn’t a large sample size, he was in the top 25 among running backs. His numbers with those 34 targets were not impressive, grabbing 24 of the 34 targets for 139 yards and no touchdowns. 

Outside of just his fumbling issues, Sanders had issues holding onto the ball as a receiver as well, as he finished 2018 with three drops and a drop rate of 10.7% on those targets. Among the running backs that had at least 34 targets last season, only three had a higher drop rate. Of the top 50 running backs in targets last season in the FBS, only six had a higher drop rate than Sanders. So his hands left a lot to be desired last season. 

Sanders was also not especially elusive after the catch. Sanders was 23rd in targets last season, but 68th in YAC with 185 total yards after the catch on his 24 receptions. Among the 42 running backs in the FBS with at least 30 targets, Sanders was 41st with an average of 5.8 yards-per-reception. 

Part of the reason is that Sanders is not especially fast or elusive. He ran a 4.49 second 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine this year, which was 8th in what was considered a slow running back class. He did not display the kind of cut-on-a-dime moves that other backs in the draft did, or other running backs that have come through Philadelphia have displayed. Sanders got the majority of his yards after contact by displaying great balance, something the Eagles should be encouraged about. 

But while his numbers and performance in the passing game in college are concerning, the NFL Draft is all about projecting. The Eagles clearly feel Sanders can make an impact as a receiver. Sanders reportedly had a good showing at his Pro Day at Penn State and displayed soft hands. He also lined up in the slot a fair amount in college. 

Based off of his showing in college, however, all the Eagles can do is project — and hope he improves considerably as a receiver in the NFL. 

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