What To Expect From Miles Sanders in 2020 (Fantasy Football)
It feels like the phrase “running back by committee” (RBBC) and the Eagles’ head coach Doug Pederson go hand-in-hand. We have seen Pederson utilize this approach in the backfield since he arrived in Philadelphia, winning the Super Bowl victory in 2017. The story didn’t change in 2018 with Jay Ajayi, Darren Sproles, and Corey Clement as well as 2019 with rookie Miles Sanders and Jordan Howard.
Yet, there seems to be a growing amount of buzz around Sanders for 2020. It’s as though the Eagles are suddenly going to abandoned Pederson’s run game and use one featured back who will rush for over 1,000 yards. This has yet to happen with Pederson as their head coach.
I won’t deny that Sanders’ opportunity on the surface looks juicy. Howard is gone, the Eagles have yet to sign another RB, and the competition consists of a sophomore who has yet to play a full season and some rookies.
Is it feasible to think Sanders could emerge as a consistent, featured back with a Pederson-led offense?
What Happened in 2019
There was a decent amount of hype surrounding Jordan Howard when he was traded to the Eagles prior to the 2019 season. There was a desperate need for a veteran presence in the backfield and Howard was meant to be that salve. Once he got his feet underneath him after Week 3, Howard had four finishes in the top-24 during Weeks 3 through 9. He finished as the RB2 in Week 4 against Green Bay and then as the RB10 in Week 8 against Buffalo. All signs pointed to Howard being the perfect compliment that the Eagles’ backfield needed.
Unfortunately, he got hurt and didn’t return to the field after the teams’ Week 10 bye, leaving Sanders to shoulder the load in the Eagles’ run game. However, Sanders’ rise in the offense wasn’t a situation predicated only by an injury. True to Pederson’s RBBC approach, Sanders also made a splash in the first half of the season alongside his teammate. In Weeks 3 through 9, Sanders finished in the top-24 three times. He was the RB10 in Week 6 against Minnesota and the RB9 in Week 8 against Buffalo. (Note that Howard finished as the RB10 in the same week).
After the Howard injury, the Eagles still did not rely on Sanders as the one and only featured back for the rest of the season. RB Boston Scott stepped up to the plate in Weeks 14 through 17 where he had 38 rushing attempts for 151 yards and four touchdowns. He also saw 25 targets with 23 receptions for 199 yards with a 92% catch rate. He finished inside the top-10 twice in four weeks.
During those same weeks, Sanders rushed 63 times for 298 yards but only ran in two touchdowns. He saw less work in the passing game than Scott, seeing 22 targets with 18 receptions for 150 yards and one receiving touchdown. Sanders did finish inside the top-10 two times as the RB3 in Week 15 and the RB7 in Week 16, the same amount of times as Scott.
Doug Pederson and the RBBC
This brings me to the next big factor for Sanders in 2020, his head coach, Doug Pederson. Let’s take a look at the Ultimate Draft Kit’s Market Share Report to get a better idea of how the Eagles spread out their run offense. The 2020 UDK now has charts of each players’ market share for a visual representation of the report.
The charts above can visually show you what a running back by committee offense looks like. There is not one player that really sticks out as the featured guy. Even after Howard went down, Sanders still had to contend with what Pederson knows best, which is a running back by committee backfield.
This all but guarantees a cap on touches for the running backs. Since Pederson took the head coaching job in 2016, no running back has reached 200 rush attempts in a season nor eclipsed 1,000 yards. Sanders came close with 179 carries for 818 yards in 2019.
I completely understand that Scott may not be the flashiest name to share the backfield with Sanders, which may give him the edge to see more touches. That notion was proved completely unfounded during Weeks 14 through 17. I also still firmly believe the Eagles are actively looking to add a veteran RB to the team.
In an article published in June of this year, NJ.com reported that Pederson admitted that, “We had the opportunity to possibly grab a player and he slipped through our fingers”. I just want to reiterate that last part, “slipped through our fingers“.
That statement doesn’t show me that he’s confident putting Sanders in a featured role in 2020. That shows me the Eagles are looking for a veteran back to compliment what they have. While a veteran RB has yet to be signed as of this article date, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the Eagles start the season with a seasoned back in addition to Sanders and Scott.
Snap Counts and Red Zone Productivity
During the first nine weeks of play, Howard’s snap counts ranged from 22.2% to 72.6%, waffling between 30% and over 50% a majority of the time. Sanders was on the field as few as 17.6% of snaps but did not exceed more 53.5%.
After Howard was injured, Sanders’ percentages predictably jumped up into the 80% count for three weeks as the primary back. However, while this was good news for fantasy, this was disastrous for the Eagles. During those three games with Sanders as the featured back, they lost to New England, Seattle, and then Miami. The following week, Pederson abandoned the idea of having only Sanders as his RB, and Scott saw his snap count increase to over 40%. He had previously only played in as high as 19.4% of offensive plays.
The Eagles then won the next four games in a row cementing a spot in the playoffs. The lesson is simple here. They win with an RBBC approach and Pederson knows that.
We can also take this a step further and look at the red zone touches. Touchdowns are notoriously difficult to predict, but looking at the opportunity in the red zone can give us an idea of who the team relies on during critical scoring situations. Since Howard is out of the picture for the Eagles, I looked at only Weeks 14 – 17 when Scott was in play.
Sanders and Scott both had 11 rush attempts inside the 20 with Sanders scoring two rushing touchdowns to Scott’s four. This is interesting because it shows me the offense still didn’t want to rely heavily on only Sanders to score inside the 20.
We can break this down even further by using the UDK’s Red Zone Report to look at the 10-Zone and 5-Zone Rushing stats.
The charts above look at the entire season instead of just Weeks 14 through 17. This is disconcerting when it comes to Sanders’ touchdown opportunity. When we remember that most of Scott’s numbers came on only four games, it’s downright worrisome.
Sanders absolutely has the talent to be an RB1 and he has demonstrated that he can get there, however, he lacks the opportunity to consistently stay there. As I mentioned earlier, the track record for a single-back offense was grim in 2019. So grim, that Scott was thrust into the limelight and shined in this offense which is dedicated to the committee backfield. Scott was drafted by the Saints in 2018, waived in September, resigned on the practice squad, only to then sign with the Eagles in December. He played only two games that year.
If the Eagles can win with Scott and they do not feel the need to sign another running back, the end of 2019 could be the narrative we see in 2020. Even if the Eagles sign a veteran, we are going to see the same thing. Either way, Sanders will most likely be sharing that backfield with 50% of the snap counts on a team that hasn’t demonstrated that they trust him in the red zone yet.
I see him finishing in the top of the RB2 tier with massive RB1 weeks. Currently, Sanders is being drafted toward the end of the 1st Round, beginning of the 2nd. That price is steep, in my opinion. However, the WR class this year is deep and there is excellent talent to be had later in drafts. If I were to wait on drafting a WR until the 3rd Round or later, then I would feel comfortable taking Sanders at his current ADP. It’s not a strategy that works all the time and it carries risk. The only way I would feel comfortable with Sanders on my team is if I had a stud RB1 already.