I do surgery in my day job. Surgical diseases are complex, unique, and unpredictable processes. You do your research, examine the patient, review the objective data – do all the right things. And, much like fantasy football, sometimes, it still goes wrong.
But then you have the hacks. Don’t do an exam or examine the CT scan. Go in unprepared, and make obvious avoidable mistakes. Inevitably, things go wrong. This is called malpractice.
Drafting Miles Sanders in the first round of your 2020 dynasty startup is malpractice.
Sanders ended 2020 on a tear, working as a dual-threat back on an injury-ravaged (at the skill positions, anyway) Eagles’ offense. He scored points at a 16-game pace that would have made him the PPR fantasy RB 2. Further, the Eagles have not added any competition beyond former practice-squad ace, Boston Scott.
While it all sounds enticing, there’s more to the story.
As with surgery, we’ll start with the physical exam – in this case, the film. Is he actually a good running back? While Sanders is an explosive athlete, he has a couple major flaws to his game. First, he has backup-level vision – he does not process defenders well, misses holes that are obvious based on the initial read, wastes steps in the backfield, and struggles to interpret his blockers’ leverage. Runs like this were frequent in 2019.
Second, Sanders struggles to defeat tacklers. He runs with little power, has below-average contact balance, and is not especially creative or elusive. These deficiencies carried him to a 25th-place finish in yards after contact per carry in 2019, per Pro Football Reference.
Coupled with the tendency to run like Stevie Wonder, his inability to win collisions makes Sanders a very poor short yardage back. This manifested itself in limited opportunity inside the 10 yard line, even after Jordan Howard went down injured week 10. Despite playing in only five of the seven final games, Boston Scott, the 203 lb former 6th-round pick, out-carried Sanders 11-to-7, and outscored him four touchdowns to two on those valuable short red zone looks.
Even as a receiver, where I have seen eager comparisons to Christian McCaffrey, Sanders is overrated. He is an explosive athlete and functional pass catcher, who can capitalize on open looks in the screen game, checkdowns and schemed looks. He is not a detailed route runner, does not catch the ball comfortably in stride, and is not effective shaking off tacklers after the catch. These types of receiving backs are a dime-a-dozen in the NFL, and generally do not earn a central role in an effective NFL passing attack. Christian McCaffrey, he is not.
Now that we have examined the player, let’s look at the data.
After a slow start in two games with Jordan Howard out of the way, Sanders produced at an elite level over the Eagles’ final 5 regular season games. Again, his production extrapolated over a full season would have been good enough for the 2019 RB2! But, Sanders did this behind an elite Eagles' run-blocking offensive line (now missing all-pro RG Brandon Brooks following a ruptured achilles), pushing around Football Outsiders’ 19th, 24th, 27th (twice) and 32nd ranked defenses based on DVOA.
Looking deeper, more concerning trends emerge. Sanders began the season as the Eagles’ lead back, out-snapping Howard 70:35 through the first two weeks. Sanders struggled, and saw his snap share reduced by over 30% during games 3-9, when he was out-snapped by Howard 244:171. Over this seven-game span, Howard produced on the ground to the tune of 105-463-6, compared to Sanders’ 55-283-1. This is the crux of the issue for Sanders – in addition to losing goal line looks to a player like Boston Scott, he is not good enough to hold off a solid NFL runner for the lead job between the twenties.
Right now, Sanders does not have to compete with a starting-caliber runner. But keep in mind, Philadelphia contemplated drafting J.K. Dobbins in round two of the draft, and have had reported talks with veterans Carlos Hyde, Devonta Freeman, and LeSean McCoy. The other shoe may still drop.
Even with his rushing limitations, volume is the name of the fantasy game, and Sanders’ value is propped up by anticipated receiving opportunity. There, the outlook is less rosy than you’d think. Sanders earned 27 targets over 9 games while playing with Howard – when the Eagles still had a healthy receiving corps. Over the final 8 games without Howard, Sanders earned 41 targets, a rate of 5.1 per game that would rank 11th among NFL backs if maintained across an entire season.
However, Boston Scott out-targeted Sanders 28-to-27 over the Eagles’ final five games. In those games – when the Eagles receiving group consisted of JJ Arcega-Whiteside, Greg Ward, Robert Davis, Deontay Burnett, Larry, Moe, and Curly – Sanders and Scott received a combined 28% target share. But, with healthy receivers in 2018 and 2017, Doug Pederson’s offenses targeted backs on just 17.3% and 13.5% of dropbacks, respectively. Looking ahead, if the Eagles maintain a 50:50 target split between Scott and Sanders, target running backs at an outlier rate of 20%, and attempt another 599 passes, Sanders would earn just 60 targets in 2020. That would have been good for 16th in the NFL in 2019 – certainly not enough receiving volume to offset a potential time-share in the ground game and near-certain loss of goal line work.
In summary, both the subjective exam and objective data point towards Miles Sanders being a tier three (or mid-second round pick in a PPR draft) fantasy running back, rather than the next big thing. His film is not elite, and his opportunity is probably over-stated. Do yourself a favor this start-up season and draft a uniquely talented runner, like Nick Chubb, Joe Mixon or Josh Jacobs, instead. Eventually, talent begets opportunity.
Follow J Moyer on Twitter @JMoyerFB