Running back is one of the more promising position groups on the Philadelphia Eagles roster as they enter the 2021 season. Miles Sanders is a prime candidate to breakout, Boston Scott has proved he’s a reliable backup, and the additions of Kerryon Johnson, Kenneth Gainwell, and Jordan Howard should all contribute to the offense this season.
So without further ado, let’s get right into this position profile.
While the Eagles don’t necessarily have a premiere back in their backfield — although Sanders could prove to be that this season — they have outstanding depth. And what sets their backfield depth apart from past iterations is that each back possesses a unique skill set that can pair nicely with their colleagues.
Sanders is the most well rounded back of the bunch, improving his numbers in 2020 as opposed to his rookie season, despite playing behind a terrible offensive line and being hampered by injuries. In 11 starts, Sanders amassed 867 yards on the ground with an average of 5.3 yards per carry, 4th-highest among backs with at least 150 carries. His rushing yards per game went up about 20 yards and he increased his rushing touchdown total by three.
Behind the former Nittany Lion, you have a plethora of backs who can contribute to any NFL offense. Starting with Scott, he also improved his yards per carry average in 2020, jumping from 4.0 yards per carry in 2019 to 4.7 last season. What both Scott and Sanders struggled in last season, though, was their pass blocking. They both posted pass blocking grades of 52 or worse, per Pro Football Focus.
While they both should work on that this summer, the team decided to mitigate that issue by signing former Lions running back Kerryon Johnson. Johnson is one of the better third down backs in the league. Not only because of his proficient receiving ability, but because he’s one of the best pass blocking backs in all of football. He has a career pass blocking grade of 84.8 on PFF, 6th-highest among all active backs.
Rookie Kenneth Gainwell is someone who can immediately make plays in a third down back role. His receiving skills are so polished that some scouts actually suggested that he may be best suited as a slot receiver in the NFL rather than a running back. I wouldn’t go that far, but he certainly has the ability to make an immediate impact as a receiving threat out of the backfield. And like Johnson, he’s a solid pass blocker in blitz pickup.
If you don’t believe me, just watch this play against Penn State’s Micah Parsons, the consensus No. 1 linebacker in this year’s draft.
Then we have Jordan Howard, a solid short yardage power back who should pair nicely with the rest of the backs on the roster.
The only problem is that not all of them will make the roster — there’s no shot the team carries five backs on game day. I think either Howard or Scott are the odd men out here. If the team wants to keep a power back, then Scott will be gone. If they just want playmakers back there, count Howard out and Scott in.
All in all, this group has a ton of potential heading into 2021. If it all comes together and the different skill sets mesh well with one another, we should expect big things out of Sanders and Co. this season.
Surprisingly, PFF ranked the Eagles backfield as the 27th-best unit in the NFL, which is pretty low considering Sanders’ potential and the depth behind him. Not to mention they ranked the Eagles backfield seven places higher last season. But in their reasoning, they did point out some real concerns. .
Here’s the entire snippet:
Miles Sanders is a player whose PFF grading profile doesn’t necessarily match the public perception. As a rookie, he earned just a 59.1 rushing grade while running behind one of the best run-blocking offensive lines in football, but he did show promise in the passing game. That flipped this past season for Philadelphia when Sanders improved his rushing grade to 75.3. However, he struggled with drops, as his eight spills were tied for the most at the position.
He’ll look to clean those drops up and continue to progress as a runner in a backfield that doesn’t offer much real competition. Boston Scott, Kerryon Johnson and Jordan Howard will compete for work behind Sanders.”
The drops from Sanders are definitely a bit worrisome. Especially considering how efficient he was as a pass catcher in 2019. But it’s not something that I think will be a long-term issue with Sanders moving forward.
Last season was largely disappointing for a handful of Eagles players. It’s not fair to judge some of the shortcomings based on what transpired last season. Sanders’ drops included.
And even if Sanders continues to have trouble in the passing game next season, the team has Scott, Johnson, or Gainwell to turn to. All of whom can effectively play the receiving back role for this offense.
We also have to consider the offensive line in any discussion about running backs, and this year’s line should be an improvement over what we saw last season, if they all stay healthy. The play calling should also improve, as Doug Pederson struggled to keep any kind of balance going in his offensive attack last season. Nick Sirianni comes from a system in Indianapolis where balance was key.
Using the word ‘balance’ when talking football can be a bit overused at times, though. It’s more about just attacking the weaknesses of opposing defenses and doing what best suits the skill players on your offense. Last season, it felt like Pederson wanted to pass the ball no matter what, despite his starting quarterback struggling immensely. I don’t think Sirianni will be that stubborn — at least I’m hoping he isn’t.
While some outsiders may view this running back group as a mixed bag, I can’t help but get excited about what they can do behind a solid offensive line and with a play caller who will put them in favorable positions.
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