PHILADELPHIA – It’s no longer a question of if Miles Sanders will eclipse 1,000 yards rushing for the first time in his career, as much as when – and what that means for his future as an Eagle.
Sanders has 900 yards rushing this season, already a career high, heading into the Eagles’ game Sunday against the Tennessee Titans. He would become the first Eagles running back to have at least 1,000 yards rushing in a season since LeSean McCoy in 2014.
“It’s a long time coming, man,” Sanders said. “It’s my fourth year in the league and my first time getting a thousand.”
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The timing seems perfect for Sanders, who is also eligible for free agency after the season.
But it also leaves the Eagles with a dilemma, one that can be answered by looking at the running back the Eagles will try to stop in Tennessee’s Derrick Henry.
Henry signed a four-year deal worth as much as $50 million in the summer of 2020 for an annual average value of $12.5 million per season. Back then, Henry had just turned 26 years old. Sanders turns 26 next spring.
There is no disputing that Henry is a top running back as he leads the NFL in yards (6,307) and rushing touchdowns (60) since the start of the 2017 season. Henry is still producing, he’s second in the NFL with 1,048 rushing yards.
That could be a clue as to what it might take for the Eagles to keep Sanders on a new contract. Since Henry signed his contract, seven other running backs got contracts with salaries averaging out to $12 million or more per season, led by Christian McCaffrey at $16 million.
But do the Eagles want to spend that much on a running back? And if not, does Sanders want to give the Eagles a hometown discount?
If Sanders is interested in getting top dollar − and why shouldn’t he be considering that running backs have such a short shelf life (more on that later)? – he could very well wait until next spring to see what Giants star Saquon Barkley gets when he hits free agency.
Sanders and Barkley were teammates at Penn State. The Eagles will face Barkley, who is fourth in rushing with 992 yards, next week.
While Sanders wouldn’t compare himself to Henry or Barkley, he didn’t shy away from saying where he ranks among the top backs in the NFL.
“Saquon’s my guy, but I don’t really compare myself because I know our offense’s game plan is different than their game plan,” Sanders said. “I can’t sit there and dwell on comparing myself to these other running backs. I do believe that I’m the best. But I don’t sit there and worry about anybody else at this point.”
Sanders was referring to the fact that Henry and Barkley are the focal point of their teams’ offenses. Henry leads the NFL in carries with 247 and Barkley is second with 224.
Sanders, meanwhile, is not, with 177 carries, although he said “I wish I had that many.”
That won’t happen with the Eagles. Sanders shares carries with quarterback Jalen Hurts, not to mention Boston Scott and Kenny Gainswell getting some here and there. And the Eagles also have a much more developed passing game with receivers AJ Brown, DeVonta Smith and tight end Dallas Goedert, who is currently on injured reserve.
Then again, that could prolong Sanders’ career, knowing that he won’t take the same kind of pounding that Henry and Barkley take. So it might mean Sanders takes less than the average value to stay with the Eagles, while getting more money over the length of the contract by staying healthier, reaching incentives and so on.
But the Eagles face a dilemma too.
Because the Titans paid Henry, to go along with quarterback Ryan Tannehill (average annual value of $29.5 million per season through 2023), they could not afford to pay Brown. So the Titans traded Brown to the Eagles on draft night last April in exchange for a first-round pick that the Titans used on wide receiver Treylon Burks.
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Burks might one day turn out to be as good as Brown. But that hasn’t happened this season as the Titans have the 26th-ranked scoring offense at 19 points per game, and they’re 29th in passing yards per game, at 176.
The Eagles, meanwhile, gave Brown a four-year contract worth as much as $100 million upon making the trade. They will also likely pay Hurts, who will be heading into the final year of his rookie contract in 2023. An extension for Hurts could surpass the $40 million per year mark.
That, of course, doesn’t leave the Eagles much room to fit in Sanders, and definitely not at the top of the running back pay scale.
Then add in the context of how the NFL lifespan of a running back averages out to 2.57 years, according to Footballguys.com, and how the production starts declining at age 28.
Henry, who’s 28, is averaging just 4.2 yards per carry, tied for the lowest of his career. Over the last three games, he averaged 2.8 yards per carry. That included last Sunday when the Bengals held Henry to 38 yards on 17 carries (2.2 yards per carry) in the Titans’ 20-16 loss.
Sanders also has a much better offensive line to work with, something that he appreciates. And of course, Hurts’ running ability, not to mention his vastly improved passing, opens up lanes for him as well.
“I think just having a balance is good to have, all over your offense,” Sanders said. “We’re able to do whatever we want to do, whether it’s run the ball or pass the ball, I think you still need a good balance of both for whatever type of offense you want.”
The Eagles could easily decide not to pay Sanders, then use one of their four picks in the first three rounds on a running back. And Sanders could easily take a lucrative deal elsewhere.
The Titans made their decision with Henry. Soon the Eagles will have to make their own – one way or the other – with Sanders.
Regarding Henry …
It’s no secret that the Titans will try to run the ball with Henry while the Eagles will do everything possible to stop him.
On the other side, it’s safe to say the Eagles won’t run for 363 yards like they did last Sunday night against Green Bay. The Titans allow 85 rushing yards per game, ranking third in the NFL.
For the Eagles, this game will come down to the passing attack, and that would be just fine with Brown, considering that he’d love to show his former team what they’re missing by not paying him.
In the passing game, Tennessee isn’t as good, both on offense, where it ranks 29th and on defense, where it ranks 31st in the NFL, allowing 267 yards per game.
Then again, Hurts hasn’t thrown for 200 yards in any of the last three games. Of course, Hurts didn’t have to against the Packers. He will have to fight against the Titans.
He will, and that should be enough.
Score: Eagles 24, Titans 19
Contact Martin Frank at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @Mfranknfl.