PHILADELPHIA — Not long after selecting Penn State’s Miles Sanders in the second round of the NFL draft last week, Philadelphia Eagles executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman strolled to the podium and playfully declared:
“Guess what, guys? We got a running back! We draft running backs in Philadelphia.”
He is well aware of the perception that had built up over time — that the Eagles, under Roseman’s stewardship, do not put a high value on the running back position. The Eagles had not selected a back higher than the fourth round since 2009, when they took LeSean McCoy in the second.
A decade later, the streak has come to an end, and with some odd symmetry attached to it. Sanders, like McCoy, hails from Western Pennsylvania. There are similarities in their games, most notably in their lateral quickness. And both were taken by Philly with the No. 53 overall pick. Roseman noted that Sanders “reminded us of some other players we’ve had around here.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen LeSean McCoy come through Philly and put on,” Sanders said. “He did great for the Eagles, but I’m looking forward to doing even better.”
Best of NFL Nation
• No excuses for Titans QB Marcus Mariota
• O’Shea, Caldwell hold keys to Rosen revival
• How will Eagles sort out their backfield?
• Raiders didn’t want to wait for Clelin Ferrell
• Ex-Jet Mark Gastineau’s 40-year odyssey
While he has a long way to go before he gets into that conversation, Sanders will have a chance to make an instant impact in Philadelphia, and he should help elevate the Eagles’ run game along with free-agent addition Jordan Howard.
Philly finished 28th in rushing yards last season (1,570) and was second from the bottom in yards per attempt (3.9). The Eagles’ leading individual rusher, rookie Josh Adams, ranked 41st in the NFL in rushing yards (511). The lack of production on the ground had a ripple effect, impairing an offense that dipped statistically across the board in 2018.
The Eagles addressed the need by trading for Howard, the league’s third-leading rusher since he entered the NFL in 2016, before taking Sanders in the draft.
The trick for coach Doug Pederson and running backs coach Duce Staley will be figuring out how to best deploy a backfield that also includes Super Bowl standout Corey Clement. The Eagles believe Sanders has the ability to be a three-down back, though he was used somewhat sparingly as a receiver in college and needs to improve in pass protection. There will be a feeling-out process while the coaches get a sense for exactly what they’re working with.
One thing they know is that both have experience handling a shared workload. Sanders needed patience as Saquon Barkley got the lion’s share of the work when they were together at PSU, while Howard was paired with Tarik Cohen in Chicago.
“I’m used to rotating. I’m not a selfish player,” Sanders said. “I’m willing to do whatever it takes to help this team win. High school, I split reps with another great running back. Penn State was kind of the same thing. I’m ready. I’m willing to do whatever, as far as special teams or splitting reps, it doesn’t matter. I’m ready to do whatever to help this team win a championship.”
Both could end up having solid statistical seasons, with Howard (nine rushing TDs in each of the past two seasons) getting plenty of goal-line work and Sanders having the ability to take over as the lead back eventually.
It will take some time until their roles fully crystallize, but the potential is there for Sanders and Howard to do some damage together almost right away, lifting the offense up in the process.
“We are always trying to look for complementary guys on our roster, but by the same token, Miles is a guy, he can play all three downs. Jordan has got better hands than maybe advertised,” Roseman said. “But you have these guys that can do different things, and for Coach, he’s looking for guys who have different skill sets, so he can provide different looks to the defense, and it’s a matchup league. That’s what we are looking to provide our coaching staff, guys who can win one-on-one matchups and who can play in specific situations so there’s not a play that he can’t call because he doesn’t have the right skill set there.”