Breaking Down the Philadelphia Eagles’ Backfield for 2020
Many NFL teams have moved toward a committee backfield, but Philadelphia is seemingly entrusting their backfield to Miles Sanders after declining to re-sign Jordan Howard. However, there may be more than meets the eye in deciphering Sanders’s usage and expected production this coming season. With turnover in the running back room and a number of coaching changes, there is much to delve into in projecting the Eagles’ backfield for 2020, both in terms of projected workload as well as fantasy outlooks.
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Eagles Backfield Breakdown for 2020
Philadelphia’s offensive line ranked 14th in run-blocking last season. In fact, Pro Football Focus ranked the Eagles’ offensive line as the best in the league in 2019. With strong run-blocking, at a glance, Sanders ran well as a rookie, averaging 4.6 yards per carry last year, which ranked 14th among running backs. But upon closer inspection, Sanders was actually only the second-most efficient running back on his own team.
Last season, Sanders averaged 2.5 rushing yards before contact per carry (YBC/Att), which ranked 12th among running backs. Howard, Sanders’s teammate, averaged just 2.0 YBC/Att behind the same offensive line, which ranked 24th among running backs, likely due to the fact that defenses were aware that Howard has rarely been used as a receiver due to inconsistencies as a pass-catcher.
Despite opposing defenses expecting to meet Howard on the ground, he averaged 2.4 rushing yards after contact per carry (YAC/Att), which ranked 15th among running backs. Even though opposing defenses had to respect Sanders as a receiver out of the backfield, he averaged just 2.1 YAC/Att, which ranked 24th among running backs. Howard was surprisingly the more efficient pure runner of the two. Here’s just one example of Sanders struggling to create yards despite good blocking up front.
With Howard leaving Philadelphia for Miami in the offseason, Sanders could be the primary beneficiary in seeing more work in 2020, but Boston Scott figures to benefit as well. Scott is slated to complement Sanders in this backfield, and while he was a non-factor for most of 2019, the Eagles utilized Scott heavily in the final four games of the season. After playing only 38 total snaps on offense over the first 12 games, Scott averaged 31 offensive snaps per game from Weeks 14 through 16 (38.8 percent of the total offensive snaps).
And when Sanders left the Week 17 matchup against the Giants early with an ankle injury, Scott stepped in with a dynamic performance, rushing for 54 yards and three touchdowns and adding 84 yards through the air. All three of Sanders, Scott, and Howard were productive behind a stout offensive line, but Sanders was surprisingly the least efficient of the three in both rushing defense-adjusted yards above replacement (DYAR) as well as rushing defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA) per Football Outsiders.
While Scott’s efficiency metrics may be artificially boosted due to his smaller sample size of rushing attempts, Sanders’s inefficient metrics remain worrisome. Two major losses on the offensive line also bode ill for the Eagles’ rushing attack in 2020. While 38-year-old left tackle Jason Peters declined last year, he was nonetheless an anchor on the offensive line. Sophomore Andre Dillard will be stepping into the starting role at left tackle but is still an unknown, and his play this coming season will greatly impact the offense as a whole.
The bigger loss is that of right guard Brandon Brooks, the top-graded offensive lineman in the entire league who has been top-10 in the NFL in both pass-blocking and run-blocking since joining the Eagles. Former sixth-round selection Matt Pryor played reasonably well filling in during a couple of games, but we have yet to see how he’ll perform in extensive action.
With Brooks out for the entire 2020 season after suffering an Achilles injury, rushing expectations should be constrained for both Sanders and Scott. However, both running backs excelled in the passing game as receivers, which should help mitigate a potential decline in rushing production as a result of the losses on the offensive line.
In 2019, Sanders saw 63 targets out of the backfield compared to 26 for Scott. Howard was rarely utilized in the passing game with just 14 targets in 10 games played. However, Scott’s role again increased significantly from Weeks 14 through 16. During those three games when both Sanders and Scott were healthy, Sanders averaged 5.0 receptions for 50 yards on 5.7 targets per game. More surprising is the fact that Scott actually saw more usage in the passing game over that span, averaging 6.3 receptions for 38 yards on 6.3 targets per game.
Though Sanders was the more valuable receiver overall, Scott remarkably enough generated more value as a receiver on a per-play basis. Once again, his smaller sample size of just 26 receptions likely skews his efficiency metrics a bit, but it’s undeniable that Scott is likewise a dynamic play-maker in space as a receiving back, much like Sanders. The two of them should continue to split time on passing downs in 2020 as they did late in the 2019 season.
Coaching Indicates A Committee Backfield
Historically, head coach Doug Pederson has preferred a committee backfield. And given that both Sanders and Scott were efficient both as runners and receivers in 2019, there’s no compelling reason for Pederson and the coaching staff to exclusively use Sanders. Both Pederson and general manager Howie Roseman have emphasized analytics, so they’ve surely noticed the same metrics outlined above. Resultingly, from interviews conducted at the NFL Combine back in March, Matthew Berry noted:
I would not count on Miles Sanders becoming a stand-alone fantasy star this year. Philly still wants a RBBC this season, and one of its coaches noted the Eagles really missed Jordan Howard down the stretch last season.
Philadelphia fired former offensive coordinator Mike Groh in January following their loss to the Seahawks in the wild card round of the playoffs. Without an official offensive coordinator, Pederson will call plays with input from passing game coordinator Press Taylor and running game coordinator Jeff Stoutland.
The Eagles also hired former Denver offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello as a senior offensive assistant and former Mississippi State passing game coordinator Andrew Breiner as a pass game analyst. At the end of the day though, Pederson has executive control over the offense, and here are how the workloads for Eagles running backs have historically fared under him over the last four seasons.
Historical Rushing & Receiving Workload Splits
Pederson has yet to waver from a history of using a committee backfield. Since his head coaching tenure began in Philadelphia back in 2016, no Eagles running back has consistently touched the ball on more than 50 percent of the total touches out of the backfield. This includes both carries as well as targets out of the backfield. Here is how Sanders’s rushing workload last season fared against other top rushers under Pederson.
Though Ryan Mathews missed three games due to injury in 2016 and was at the tail end of his career, it’s hardly encouraging that Sanders’s 46 percent rushing workload is the highest any Eagles running back has seen under Pederson. And that’s with averaging 14.7 carries per game over the last seven weeks with Howard out. With a healthy Howard from Weeks 1 through 9, Sanders averaged a meager 8.4 carries per game, which would’ve extrapolated out to just 135 rushing attempts over a full 16-game slate.
Even more disconcerting is the lack of red zone usage for Sanders. From Weeks 1 through 9 when Howard was healthy, he recorded 22 carries inside the 20-yard line, double the 11 red-zone carries that Sanders saw. And from Weeks 14 through 16 when Scott began seeing more playing time, Scott saw seven carries inside the 20-yard line, just three fewer than Sanders had over the same span. This near 50/50 split in red zone work clearly belies the notion that Sanders was the preferred red zone back and Scott just a pass-catching specialist.
Though I’d expect Sanders’s rushing attempts to increase as the best all-around back on the depth chart, concerns remain. A healthy target share out of the backfield is the biggest reason for optimism for Sanders going forward. Here is how Sanders’s 2019 receiving workload fared against other top receiving backs under Pederson.
Sanders’s 55 percent target share among Eagles running backs in 2019 was second only to Darren Sproles’s 62 percent target share in 2016. And as outlined above, even with Scott seeing heavy usage as a receiver from Weeks 14 through 16, Sanders maintained his usage as a receiver. Based on Sanders’s performance in 2019, he should lead the backfield in both carries and receptions, but Scott figures to be heavily involved as the complementary back and is not just a backup.
Philadelphia currently has six running backs on their roster. In addition to Sanders and Scott, they also have Corey Clement and Elijah Holyfield as holdovers from 2019, and they signed undrafted free agents Michael Warren and Adrian Killins following the NFL Draft. Let’s begin with the process of elimination.
Although the Eagles brought back Clement on a one-year veteran minimum deal, his impact to the backfield is minimal. Even prior to landing on injured reserve last year with a shoulder injury, Clement’s usage was primarily on special teams. Elijah Holyfield is an unknown factor, as he has yet to play a single regular-season snap since joining the Eagles in December after his practice squad contract with the Panthers expired. Though Holyfield could eventually contribute, it’s unlikely as of now barring an injury to those above him on the depth chart.
Moving onto the recently-added rookie free agents, Killins is intriguing but a dubious prospect to see a significant workload with him weighing in at just 5’7 and 162 lbs. Even by scatback standards, Killins’s slight frame is concerning, as other pass-catching specialists in the league like Tarik Cohen and Theo Riddick weighed in at 179 lbs. and 201 lbs., respectively. Killins’s role as a speedster likely indicates that he’ll be more of a special teams contributor even if he makes the final roster.
Warren is the more likely contributor of the rookies. A powerful runner out of Cincinnati, he created yards after contact and was an elusive rusher, recording 75 forced missed tackles and 15 runs of over 15 yards. Warren could eventually carve out an early-down or goal-line role by mid-season, as he compares favorably to the departed Howard as a one-speed runner, but a reliable one.
While he’s unlikely to immediately overtake any of the backs above him on the depth chart, his presence could take away some carries from both Sanders and Scott, and a potential goal-line role could vulture some touchdowns away as well. Much depends on whether Sanders can sustain drives early in the season behind worse blocking than last year. If so, Warren will likely stay on the bench for the most part. But if Sanders struggles to consistently produce between the tackles, it could open the door for Warren’s role to grow.
Potential Free Agent Additions
Given Sanders’s lack of efficiency as a pure runner in his rookie season, it’s hardly surprising that the Eagles had reportedly made an offer to Carlos Hyde prior to his signing with the Seahawks to fill the role vacated by Howard’s departure and are rumored to be interested in adding Devonta Freeman or LeSean McCoy.
For now, it seems that Freeman is asking for too much money to be a fit in Philadelphia. And as for McCoy, his signing would likely be more driven by nostalgia than actual contributions to the backfield, as he was benched last year in Kansas City and seems to be nearing retirement. Sanders’s hold on the lead job is firm, but his touch total may still be tenuous.
Though it would be an accurate statement that Sanders is the best all-around back in Philadelphia, Scott figures to see plenty of touches as well as the 1B in this backfield. While I am projecting Sanders to handle the highest share of the total backfield’s workload both on the ground and through the air, I still do not expect him to receive much more than 50 percent of either the team’s total rushing attempts or running back targets. My current 2020 projections for the top three backs in the Philadelphia backfield are as follows:
These projected totals would equate to 225.9 fantasy points for Sanders in PPR formats and 150.7 points for Scott, which would’ve resulted in fantasy finishes as the no. 13 and no. 32 running backs in 2019, respectively. Scott is worth flex consideration, and though Warren doesn’t project for a large role as of yet, their complementary involvement both as runners and receivers casts enough doubt on Sanders’s workload to keep him as a borderline RB1 rather than a top-five fantasy running back.
Though these projections would still make Sanders a high-end RB2 candidate with RB1 upside for fantasy purposes, owners expecting him to be an elite RB1 in the mold of Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, or Ezekiel Elliott are likely to be disappointed.
Dynasty Trade Calculator values Sanders somewhere between the 1.02 and 1.03 rookie pick in 1QB formats, which seems in line with his projected workload and production. I have Sanders ranked slightly lower in my dynasty rankings, barely behind Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Jonathan Taylor, and J.K. Dobbins, so right around the 1.03 or 1.04 rookie pick.
However, Dynasty League Football’s June ADP has Sanders being drafted 12th overall in 1QB dynasty startup drafts as the no. 7 running back. This valuation seems incredibly inflated to me. While I have Sanders ranked barely lower in positional rankings as the no. 12 dynasty running back just behind the three aforementioned rookies as well as Nick Chubb and Josh Jacobs, I have him far below his overall ADP as the 26th overall pick.
Sanders’s current dynasty ADP places him above players like George Kittle, Mike Evans, Kenny Golladay, and Allen Robinson, all of whom I’d prefer over Sanders straight up. Here are some recent trades from June via the DLF Trade Finder:
I prefer the side trading away Sanders in all three of the above trades, but the first two involving Tyreek Hill and Mike Evans are particularly egregious. The recent Twitter poll show below suggests that while the majority of dynasty owners value him around the 1.03 or 1.04 rookie pick in line with my expectations, 34 percent of respondents valued him as a top-two rookie pick or more. At that price, I would gladly sell Sanders.
— 𝔽𝔽𝔸 🏈 𝐌𝐄𝐍𝐆 (@FFA_Meng) May 12, 2020
As for Scott, Dynasty Trade Calculator values him somewhere between the 3.02 and 3.03 rookie pick in 1QB formats, which also seems accurate compared to my projections for him. He’s a flex option with upside if Sanders were to miss time.
Dynasty League Football’s June ADP has Scott being drafted 156th overall in 1QB dynasty startup drafts as the no. 53 running back, in the same range as other upside running backs like Chase Edmonds, Latavius Murray, and Lynn Bowden. This seems like a fair assessment, and Scott’s ADP places his value around a late second or early third-round rookie pick. However, a recent Twitter poll, shown below, indicates that Scott may still be undervalued by many in the dynasty community.
What is Boston Scott's value in #DynastyTrades? Assume a 1QB PPR format
— 𝔽𝔽𝔸 🏈 𝐌𝐄𝐍𝐆 (@FFA_Meng) June 18, 2020
The majority of respondents valued Scott as a late third-round rookie pick or less, and just 40 percent valued Scott as an early third-round rookie pick or more. Considering that Scott has some standalone value with potential flex production in addition to RB2 upside if Sanders were to miss any time, Scott is more than worth his current asking price in many dynasty leagues. While Sanders is properly valued for the most part with some sell-high opportunities, Scott is the better value to acquire at ADP of the two Eagles running backs.
And finally, Warren is going undrafted in the majority of rookie drafts as of right now, which is understandable given the fact that only a Sanders injury would grant him fantasy relevance. However, he’s worth rostering in deeper dynasty formats at the cost of just a small waiver wire bid. Warren might actually be the best value in this backfield when comparing risk vs. reward, as he would have RB2 upside in the Jordan Howard role if Sanders were to miss time with little to no cost to obtain.
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