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Eagles Training Camp Preview: The Running Backs

Miles Sanders, Running Backs

Photo Credit by John McMullen/JAKIB Sports

It was Miles Sanders who recently called the Eagles’ offense an All-Star team.

Ironically, Philadelphia doesn’t have a true star in its running back room but it’s obviously a capable group, at least behind this offensive line with a quarterback that offers the vaunted plus-one in the running game.

Philadelphia, of course, led the NFL in rushing last season and the team’s top four running backs averaged at least 4.3 yards-per-carry with Sanders leading the way at an impressive 5.5.

Entering the final year of his rookie deal, Sanders has always been a bit of an enigma as a talented runner who has struggled with the little things over his first three professional seasons.

Wildly overrated by much of the fan base after a promising rookie campaign in 2019, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme to the point Sanders now takes a little too much heat for a guy who matched Jonathan Taylor and Nick Chubb with that 5.5 YPC, the top mark for all NFL RBs last season.

The only area Sanders has regressed is as a pass-catcher where he showed tremendous promise as a rookie and perhaps took that part of his game for granted which resulted in sloppiness whether it’s with “tightening his hands” as former RB coach Duce Staley used to say or failing to embrace the attention to detail great outlet receivers excel at.

The worst thing you can do to a quarterback is fool him and too often Sanders isn’t where he’s supposed to be in the passing game which is why Nick Sirianni started the 2021 season with a two-man setup with then-rookie Kenny Gainwell, a great natural receiver, pegged to handle the third-down and hurry-up work.

Ball security, pass protection, leaving meat on the bone by searching for the home run, and situational awareness (like not running out of bounds when you are trying to drain the clock) are the other knocks to Sanders’ game.

Staying on the field, however, is the biggest hurdle for the Penn State product who understands his best ability will be availability after missing nine games over the past two seasons.

The Eagles will start with the same two-man Sanders/Gainwell setup in 2022 and hope it holds this time. When Sanders was injured in Las Vegas the Eagles went with Gainwell until his own ball-security issues shifted things toward veterans Jordan Howard and Boston Scott.

Scott is back but the big-bodied Howard remains a free agent as camp approaches and it seems like Philadelphia wants to look at its younger backs, the speedy Jason Huntley and undrafted rookie Kennedy Brooks, before breaking the Howard glass in case of emergency.

Depth Chart Entering TC:

RB1 Miles Sanders; RB2 Kenny Gainwell; RB3 Boston Scott; RB4 Jason Huntley; RB5 Kennedy Brooks

What’s Changed:

Howard presumably remains on speed dial but the Eagles would clearly like to move in a different direction with a younger and healthier body. The problem is that Philadelphia doesn’t have the natural big back who excels inside the tackles, at least on paper. The Eagles’ offensive line was so good in 2021, however, the thought that any warm body is going to show efficacy running the football has crossed some minds. The only newcomer is Brooks, who runs like a big back at 213 pounds and was a high-volume runner at a big-time school (Oklahoma) with three 1,000-yard college seasons.

The August Angle:

Sanders will have one last opportunity to prove he can be a true bell bow but it’s tough to envision him earning a second contract in Philadelphia because the so-called breakout season would result in a big-money deal at a position that the Eagles and most of the league no longer believes deserves big money. Meanwhile, another “underachieving” season would simply have Philadelphia turning things over to a younger and cheaper option who can also top out at 800 or 900 yards.

How Sanders handles that tricky landscape will be worth watching.

Who Stays on the 53:

Sanders and Gainwell are expected to split most of the duties until Scott is needed as an old reliable type who always answers the bell when needed.

The speedy Huntley’s path to the roster might be earned on special teams as the kick returner, which isn’t a very important role any longer but it would be nice to have someone who could generate field position when the opportunity arises. The Eagles aren’t just keeping a KR only, though, meaning Huntley will need to show value elsewhere to stick.

For now, default to Huntley as the player with the inside track to RB4 with Brooks earmarked for the 16-man practice squad and Howard waiting for the phone call.

PREVIOUS TRAINING CAMP PREVIEW PIECES:

Eagles Training Camp Preview: The Quarterbacks