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Rookie Spotlight - Miles Sanders


The Philadelphia Eagles made Miles Sanders the second running back selected in the 2019 NFL Draft. While there was very little consensus regarding the top backs in this class, most analysts had Sanders somewhere in or near their top five. Sanders (along with most RBs) was probably overdrafted by the Eagles, but that is more of a product of a weak running back class than an indictment on Sanders.

Remember, when evaluating prospects' likelihood of NFL success, we care about three things:

  1. College performance
  2. Athletic measurables
  3. Draft capital

We've seen plenty of excellent RBs come from the third round, where Sanders likely should have gone. So what does this all mean for fantasy purposes?

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College Performance

Miles Sanders did just about nothing as a freshman and sophomore. Normally, that would be a pretty sizable red flag, but there are extenuating circumstances here. Sanders was playing behind some guy named Saquon Barkley. Perhaps you have heard of him. Regardless of how good Sanders was or is, he was never seeing the field ahead of Barkley. Sanders spent two seasons as a true backup, only playing when Barkley needed a breather.

For that reason, we can justifiably choose to judge him only on his junior season where he rushed for 1274 yards on 220 carries and added 139 yards on 24 receptions. A bit of context is needed, however. Sanders struggled mightily against Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan, and Kentucky in Penn State's bowl game. He averaged just 3.2 YPC in those four games. He also lit up Michigan State and Wisconsin, displaying big play ability.

Sanders was an inconsistent producer in 2018, but certainly displayed the ability to perform well in the right conditions. If an NFL team can open up holes for him, he's very capable of running through them. He is also very good in space.

Sanders did have ball security issues, fumbling it seven times across about 280 touches between 2017 and 2018. I do think NFL head coaches are far too harsh on running backs for fumbling, but my opinion on coaches doesn't change the fact that it is something they care about. If Sanders' fumbling woes continue during training camp and the preseason, he may find himself in the doghouse. Even with the fumbling concerns, there is still a lot to like here with Sanders.

 

Athletic Measurables

On the topic of a lot to like, we can point primarily to Sanders' athleticism. He tore up the combine, with speed and burst scores in the 76th percentile and an 83rd percentile agility score. He wasn't the most powerful runner in college, which is supported by his mediocre 52nd percentile bench press, but Sanders wasn't drafted to be a between the tackles grinder.

Sanders' 77th percentile SPARQ-x score supports the fact that he is quite electric in space. It is essential that his NFL team know how to use him correctly. Fortunately, he was drafted by a team that fired its coach that completely misused DeMarco Murray by running him out of the shotgun and replaced him with a coach that has excelled at putting his running backs in positions to succeed.

 

Draft Capital

The Eagles spent the 53rd overall pick on Miles Sanders. A late second-round pick is pretty strong for a running back, but what is even more telling is the fact that the Eagles traded up to draft him. Regardless of anyone's opinion on Sanders as a player, one thing we know for sure is that the Eagles believe in him. You don't trade up for a player you don't plan to use (unless you're a backwards organization like the Seahawks).

 

Rookie Season Outlook

Ironically, the biggest threat to Sanders' success is the man I just praised for his use of running backs. Doug Pederson definitely understands how to properly use his players, but he also understands the overall devaluation of the running back position and implements a three-headed committee. In 2018, at various times, we had three of Jay Ajayi, Wendell Smallwood, Corey Clement, Josh Adams, and Darren Sproles sharing the snaps. The Eagles traded for Jordan Howard and still possess Clement, Smallwood, and Adams. My best guess as the split would be a 40-40-20 split between Howard, Sanders, and Smallwood.

I want to say Sanders is an injury away from being an every week RB2, but Pederson will likely just insert someone else as the third back in the rotation should something happen to Howard or Smallwood (or whoever ends up being the third man).

Sanders definitely belongs on the redraft radar as the presumed satellite back. At the bare minimum, Sanders will have enough of a role on a good offense to be worthy of a bench spot on your fantasy roster. However, given Pederson's history of running back usage, I would be surprised if Sanders saw enough volume to be anything more than an inconsistent low RB/high RB3.

 

Long-Term Outlook

This is much trickier. I can see the Eagles hanging onto Howard. I also don't see Doug Pederson's three back committee going anywhere. It is hard to envision a scenario where Sanders is ever more than a middling RB2. I don't think he has a three-down skill set and satellite backs come with decent floors, but limited ceilings. Sanders is a nice later round flier in redraft leagues (beginning late single digits, he's a fine pick), but I think he is severely overvalued in rookie drafts as one of the first couple players off the board. If you have a high rookie pick, you ideally want a player with a chance to be a true difference maker in your lineup. I don't see that in Sanders' range of outcomes.

Given how useless most rookie picks turn out to be, please do not misinterpret this as me undermining the value of being able to obtain a mid RB2. At the front end of the first round, though, I want more than a mid RB2. I'd be happy to grab someone like Sanders in the late first round if for no other reason than trade value, but I am not enamored with any RB in this class and have serious fears that any one of them could be vaporized by another back in what projects to be an excellent 2020 class. If you find yourself staring down the barrel of Sanders in your rookie draft, your best bet would be to trade the pick or just take Kyler Murray.

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