Whole Nine Sports

Miles Ahead: A Fantasy Football Story

Miles Sanders
Dan Ambrosino
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Not since the days of Lesean McCoy’s tenure in Philadelphia has there been a workhorse back in the Eagles’ backfield. Whether it was the split of Demarco Murray and Ryan Matthews in 2016, the timeshare between Jay Ajayi, Darren Sproles and LeGarrette Blount in 2017, or the logjam of Josh Adams, Wendell Smallwood, and Corey Clement in 2018, the Eagles backfield for fantasy purposes has been a minefield.

Eagles’ head coach Doug Pederson has always reaffirmed that a backfield committee was his preference. Back in September, he said in a press conference, “I believe the National Football League season is a grueling, grinding season, particularly on running backs… if you don’t have a couple of guys that you can really hang your hat on, it’s hard to get through a season …” For most of the season, he has been a man of his word. Former Chicago Bear Jordan Howard was splitting time with Penn State rookie Miles Sanders, while the ageless scatback Darren Sproles mixed in here and there.

Miles

It goes without saying, but the “running back by committee” model is perplexing for fantasy football. Split opportunity among running backs presents an element of unknown for fantasy managers. Will it be a “Jordan Howard” week? Will Miles Sanders get the more valuable pass catching work? Will each running back cannibalize the other’s fantasy value to a point where they cannot be relied on to start? When it comes to the RBBC, it’s a flip of the coin whether or not you choose the right guy.

Neither Jordan Howard nor Miles Sanders, despite both being tremendously talented, could steal the lead back role for themselves. In a one-two punch combination, the Howard/Sanders duo was effective for the Eagles running game, but it was horrendous for each players’ fantasy prospects. In the first nine weeks of the season, Jordan Howard averaged 12.4 PPR points per game, only scoring double digit points in four of them. His snap count fluctuated greatly each week, playing more snaps than his running mate Sanders in only four of nine contests.

Sanders
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Miles Sanders was equally difficult to project, playing less than 50% of the snaps in all but one game before the bye. He averaged 10.9 PPR points per game in his first nine contests despite the limited role, with most of his points coming in Week 6 versus the Vikings and Week 8 versus the Bills. While Miles Sanders was the most talented pass catcher in the backfield, he needed to split time with Darren Sproles and Boston Scott in obvious pass catching situations.

As the Eagles entered their Week 10 bye, fantasy managers were lost. They had once again had fallen victim to the dreaded Pederson RBBC. However, fortunes changed after Jordan Howard went down with a shoulder injury. With Sproles out for the year and Howard sidelined, only Miles Sanders and Boston Scott were left among the running back core in Philadelphia. Nonetheless, many expected Pederson to add another running back to the locker room and employ his RBBC. They resigned Jay Ajayi for what was thought to be this very reason.

Miles Sanders Eagles

However, the RBBC did not come to fruition, and Miles Sanders received the featured role we all had hoped he would. Sanders played above 70% of the snaps in four of the past five games. He out-touched his running mates in every game, with a total of 94 touches to their 46. His only game in which he did not have at least double the touches of either Scott or Ajayi was in his Monday Night clash with the New York Giants; he had been in and out of the game due to injury.

With increased opportunity, Miles Sanders seized the role and produced. From Weeks 11 through 15, Miles Sanders was the #6 overall running back in PPR, averaging 17.2 fantasy points per game in that span. He scored double digit points in four of those five games, with his biggest career game coming this past week versus Washington. He ran the ball 19 times for 122 yards and one touchdown, adding 6 receptions for 50 yards and a touchdown through the air. The total number of touches, yards, and touchdowns were all career highs.

With Jordan Howard unlikely to suit up for a Week 16 clash with the Dallas Cowboys, Miles Sanders is primed to once again receive an overwhelming majority of snaps and touches. Dallas is ranked 17th against fantasy running backs, so another double-digit performance for Sanders seems within the realm of possibility.

Jordan Howard
(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

While Sanders’ current performance is extremely encouraging and great for fantasy owners who were able to ride him through the playoffs, his future outlook may be even brighter. As a rookie, Sanders is already succeeding with a lead-back role. Jordan Howard is on an expiring contract, and the Eagles will likely get a compensatory pick if they allow him to depart in free agency. Darren Sproles and Jay Ajayi are unlikely to be retained, and Boston Scott could be brought back on a cheap deal. At the present time, there seems to be no competition for Sanders going forward.

With the Eagles having more pressing needs at other positions and limited cap space for the 2020 season, I would not be surprised if there are no significant additions made to the running back room by next year. The Eagles may sign a cheap free agent for depth or spend a late round pick on a rookie, but I doubt they will bring in a player who would take away significant snaps from Sanders.

Miles Sanders may be the first running back to break Doug Pederson’s running back by committee tendencies. He has produced in his full-time role and is making an impact in the game. His performance against Washington was one of the main reasons the Eagles were victorious.

Miles Sanders

For the Eagles organization, this is great news, as they finally have a running back who they can trust to carry the load. For fantasy owners, this is even better news, as the Eagles have been one of the most productive running teams over the past few years. By combining that aspect with only one running back carrying the load, one can surmise that the Eagles will produce one of the best fantasy running backs in the 2020 season.

It’ll be important though to watch Sanders’ performance over the remainder of the season to see that he still takes a majority of the work and succeeds with the opportunity. If he does well, he could be the RB1 for the Philadelphia Eagles and potentially an RB1 in fantasy football going forward. If he can maintain his featured role, he will be miles ahead of any Eagles running back in recent memory.