Miles Sanders wasn’t the first running back taken in the NFL Draft, but the Philadelphia Eagles’ youngster will be the best of the bunch.
I’m not a talent scout, but Miles Sanders can play.
In fact, after watching hours of rookie running back tape, he should be the first-overall pick in dynasty rookie drafts.
In my mock draft a few weeks ago, Sanders was near the bottom of the first round. However, after reviewing several of his games, there was a recalculation. The film spoke for itself. He’s the best of the incoming class at his position.
There are five main skills or qualities to look for when studying running backs entering the NFL:
Vision: This denotes the ability of a running back to see potential running lanes, whether they are currently open or may become open. For some, it comes with experience. For some, it’s a born trait. There is also an artistic element to it. No two runners see the field exactly the same way. The better vision a runner has, the more creative his runs become.
Elusiveness: There are 11 big, strong men who are trying to hit running backs hard on every carry. Elusiveness is the Barry Sanders-esque skill of keeping those men from hitting you. We’re talking jukes, changing speeds, jump cuts, and the like.
Contact balance: How good is the player at breaking tackles? If someone hits a player but does not wrap him up, how likely is he to stay on his feet and keep going?
Decisiveness: Most successful runners don’t dance; they pick the best route and hit the hole hard. This quality denotes whether a runner makes up his mind quickly enough to succeed.
Hands: How good a receiver is at catching the football. If an NFL back wants to be on the field for all three downs, he has to be able to catch the ball.
No back is perfect in all of these areas. Think of each quality within in a bar graph, with a score between 0 and 100. If we were to grade each back in each area, each would look quite a bit different.
Considering the consensus top three backs in this draft class (Josh Jacobs, David Montgomery, and Miles Sanders), Sanders comes out at the top throughout the evaluation.
His vision is excellent. He sees defenders who are approaching from various angles and begins setting them up to miss well before they actually arrive to try to tackle him. He sees lines of attack that do not look feasible on tape, but he squirts through. He anticipates where guys are going to be and beats them to the spot, or uses a quick juke or jump cut to leave them in the dust.
He is very elusive as well, with excellent lateral agility. He can be there one second and past the defender the next, and they barely touched him. Sometimes he attempts to use his speed to outrun pursuit, or to try to run all the way around the play to the edge, and that is something he has to get past in the NFL. There’s reason to believe he will.
His contact balance is second only to Montgomery’s in this class. He uses hits to spin off and stay on his feet, or at times will lower his shoulder to bounce off a defender. Defenders going for his feet are very seldom successful.
He is extremely decisive. He finds a hole and hits it very hard. There’s some Todd Gurley in his game with the way he waits for a block and then hits the hole like he was shot out of a cannon. Again, at times he does some dancing and tries to run around defenders instead of taking what he can get (perhaps because he saw Saquon Barkley do that so much with success), but typically he finds the path and takes it.
Finally, though he didn’t get a chance to show it too much at Penn State, he has great hands. He catches the ball softly and with his hands, out away from his body. Once he catches it, he tucks it and gets moving. Sanders does occasionally fumble the ball, which some teams may have docked him for. It should be a correctable issue, particularly since he’ll be working with a great running backs coach in Duce Staley.
On top of good grades in all of those areas, Sanders has breakaway speed, showing it at the NFL Scouting Combine with a 4.49 40-yard-dash. That sort of speed is not needed to be a top back, but it helps.
Here are the plays Sanders factors into in one game vs. Wisconsin. You can see each of these five elements in these plays:
The main arguments for taking Jacobs over Sanders are not related to grades on the backs but are related to draft capital and situation. Let’s look at each.
First, the Eagles didn’t have three first-round picks like the Raiders, and had reportedly wanted to trade up to grab Sanders. When they did get him, they were ecstatic. It’s not all about when a player was drafted; it’s also about how badly a team wanted a player. Both factor into how much of an opportunity the player gets.
Second, many prefer the situation of Jacobs, since it seems he will have less competition for carries and could play a three-down role. That is reasonable, and may be the case this year. However, once players start playing, coaches will respond. If Sanders is the best back in the class, it will not be long before the Eagles coaches recognize that and give him the most carries.
Some have accurately pointed out that Eagles Head Coach Doug Pederson prefers to use a committee of backs, but it is also true that Pederson is from the Andy Reid coaching tree. Reid prefers to use one back around 80 percent of the time. Perhaps Pederson has simply never had a back worthy of 80 percent of the touches.
In the end, Jacobs, Montgomery, and Sanders are all excellent prospects who could have illustrious NFL careers. Ultimately, though, I am putting actual money on Sanders as the best running back in this class. I’m taking him in a $500 dynasty league with my 1.1.
Kevin Scott is a dynasty veteran who plays in over 30 leagues per year, and has made a profit in 10 years running. You can follow him @champofantasy.