There aren’t many position groups on the Philadelphia Eagles roster that stand out from a talent standpoint. The defensive line comes to mind, but they’re getting a bit long in the tooth and likely going to start trending downwards in the coming years.
Can the Eagles claim they have the best defensive line in the division? Probably not with the young group of pass rushers in Washington. But there is one position group on the offensive side of the ball that may be able to claim they’re the best in the NFC East entering the 2021 season.
Miles Sanders and Co., while not typically cited as the best backfield in the division, is easily the deepest group of running backs in the East. With Sanders leading the way, veteran backs Kerryon Johnson and Jordan Howard have both had nice NFL careers.
Despite having a down year in 2020, Johnson has proven to be a good third down back during his time with the Detroit Lions. He’s hauled in 61 of 80 targets for 527 yards through his three NFL seasons, and he’s been a tremendous pass blocker in the backfield, posting a 84.8 career pass blocking grade per Pro Football Focus, sixth-highest among all active running backs.
Howard, while not the dual threat weapon that Johnson is, is capable of catching the ball out of the backfield and has carved a role out for himself around the league as a power, short yardage back with a nose for the end zone. Through five seasons, he’s averaged 6.8 rushing touchdowns per season. Before his down year in 2020, Howard averaged 4.35 yards per carry for his career. Coming off a year where he only toted the rock 35 times and being only 26 years old, he still has enough juice in the tank to contribute in the NFL.
Then we have Boston Scott and rookie Kenneth Gainwell. If Gainwell impresses during training camp like he has during OTAs, Scott could be the odd man out. Especially if the team elects to keep Howard around for his downhill running prowess.
A backfield that consists of Sanders, Johnson, Howard, and Gainwell/Scott has the potential to not only cement itself as the top backfield in the NFC East, but perhaps one of the best running back rooms in all of football.
Taking a look at the other teams in the Eagles division (Washington, Dallas, and New York), and their backfield depth just doesn’t come close to what the Eagles have. Yes, both New York and Dallas have a higher profiled lead back (Saquon Barkley and Ezekiel Elliot respectively), but one’s coming off a torn ACL after dealing with injuries the year before, and the other is coming off his worst statistical season as a pro.
Let’s start with Barkley. I don’t think anyone can deny the immense talent he brings to the running back position. He may be the most athletically gifted back in the league when healthy. But with that great athleticism comes a higher chance of injury, just based on his running style. His cut-on-a-dime running style coupled with the heavy workload he’ll likely get with the Giants just doesn’t bode well for his long-term sustainability.
Behind Barkley, the Giants have Devontae Booker, Ryquell Armstead, and Corey Clement. Booker is the best of the bunch, and proved to be a nice change-of-pace back with the Las Vegas Raiders last season. But if Barkley goes down with another injury, relying on Booker for a long period of time wouldn’t be ideal.
Now onto the Cowboys and Elliot. Elliot’s steady decline in yards per carry over the past three seasons has been well documented. Last year, the drop-off was a bit more steep than the year prior. The Cowboys clearly wanted to lower his workload last year, as he recorded just 244 carries in 15 games, 67 less carries than the year prior. His yards per carry average went down by .5 yards, his rushing yards went down by almost 400 yards, and his rushing touchdown total was cut in half.
Tony Pollard has proven to be a nice backup to Elliot, accumulating over 430 rushing yards in his first two NFL seasons. But outside of those two, there’s not much to write home about in Dallas’ backfield.
That leaves us with Washington. Antonio Gibson had a very good rookie campaign, totaling 1,042 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns. J.D. McKissic did some nice things as Gibson’s backup, averaging 4.3 yards per carry and reaching the end zone a total of three times.
When you stack up each backfield in this division, there’s no question who has the deepest group. It’s Philly and then everyone else. As far as lead backs go, Sanders hasn’t proved enough to be placed ahead of Elliot or Barkley just yet, but that can certainly change by the end of the 2021 season. He’ll definitely get more touches under this new coaching staff, and as we’ve already seen, he has huge big play potential.
The lead back isn’t as important to a team’s rushing attack as it used to be, either. The totality of what a backfield can produce is more valuable in today’s NFL. All in all, the Eagles have everything you want in a backfield. From a potential Pro Bowl back in Sanders, to a handful of great receiving options and a nice power back in Howard, Philly has it all.
Don’t be surprised if by season’s end, every pundit points to the Eagles assortment of running backs as the best group in the NFC East, if not one of the best crews in the NFL.