NFL 2022: Philadelphia Eagles’ Miles Sanders out to get ‘respect that I finally deserve’

PHILADELPHIA– A few days into training camp, Eagles running back Miles Sanders was asked what his motivation was for his fourth NFL season.

“Just [to] finally getting the respect I deserve,” he said. “That’s all.”

Sanders’ comment followed reports earlier in the week that he was working with the second-team offense during practice – a fact that didn’t carry much significance. Sanders is considered the starter heading into the season, and so the running back rotation just fell out that day, coach Nick Sirianni said, but the further the comment got from the source, the more meaningful it took on.

Sanders took notice. The next day, he opened practice by tearing down a long run, prompting Sirianni to jokingly exclaim, “He’s in the Ones!” In the following exercise, Sanders broke off another major reinforcement – legs moving, arms pumping and maybe a whiff of steam coming from his ears – and finished it off by pointing to the crowd where some of the media was gathered while offering some words just out of reach to be heard. Probably for the better.

There’s no doubt: Sanders has an advantage entering the 2022 season, which is also a contract year for him. We probably should have seen it coming. In May, he said he was taking the upcoming season “a little personally” and stated that he was “not remotely happy with the way I played or my availability”.

Miles Sanders of the Philadelphia Eagles walks across the field prior to training camp at the NFL football team’s practice facility Friday, July 29, 2022 in Philadelphia.

AP Photo/Matt Slocum

Sanders finished last season with 754 rushing yards without touchdowns in 12 games and added 26 receptions for 168 yards. Injuries have limited its production in recent years. A sprained ankle and a broken hand cost him five games last season. The timing of the ankle injury couldn’t have been much worse. He went down early in a game against the Las Vegas Raiders on Oct. 24 — the very week the coaching staff first adjusted his offensive approach to be run-heavy. Sanders missed three games while benefiting from rookie Kenneth Gainwell, Boston Scott and Jordan Howard, and quarterback and catalyst Jalen Hurts.

Staying healthy has been at the top of Sanders’ minds in the months since. Sanders, 25, split his practice time this offseason in Houston and his hometown of Pittsburgh. He took a holistic approach and did more muscle cardio and full-body training. He said he’s been spending more time in the Eagles’ practice room this spring and summer taking preventative measures, rather than just going in when his body is struggling.

“I can see it on his arms and legs, he’s built a lot of strength,” Gainwell said. “He came into the ball that year ready, ready to do his thing.”

“Explosiveness,” added offensive coordinator Shane Steichen when asked what he’s seen from Sanders this summer. “We know he’s an explosive player but also in singles the way he runs, he runs hard, he cares about the football, he scores, he looks good. He did a couple of games the other day where he jumped – cut the line of scrimmage and hit it. I mean it was good to see.”

The talent has been evident since Sanders, the 53rd overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft from Penn State, came to Philly. He set a franchise record for rushing yards by a rookie (818), passed LeSean McCoy and led his class in all-purpose yards (1,641). He ranks third among running backs in yards per carry (5.08) since 2019 (at least 300 attempts) behind only Nick Chubb (5.34) and Jonathan Taylor (5.28).

It is the consistency – especially as a pass catcher – and the availability that was missing.

Now it’s time to put everything together. Gainwell, the team’s fifth-round pick in 2021, has had a solid rookie campaign, totaling 544 yards and six touchdowns. If Sanders goes down with an injury or fails to live up to expectations, Gainwell’s chances could rise along with Scott’s.

“Kenny is a great player. He definitely made great games for us last year. Catches the ball well, runs the ball well, hits the hole. He’s doing a really great job,” said Hurts. “Coming in now I’ve seen how his mindset has changed, I’ve seen how his approach to things has changed. I know he’s hungry and I love a hungry guy on my team so I’m excited to see him go like this this year.”

And there’s the matter of Sanders’ rookie contract, which expires at the end of the year. It’s possible he could get a new deal midseason like tight end Dallas Goedert, cornerback Avonte Maddox and defensive end Josh Sweat did last year to keep them off the free hand, but it could take a strong showing, to convince the Eagles to allocate big dollars to a position that has been generally devalued league-wide in recent years.

“I’m not really worried about the contract, not as much as you guys think I should be,” Sanders said earlier this offseason. “I’m just trying to focus on the season and less on the contract and all these extra things.”

But the stakes are clear: play well and a handsome payday will follow, whether in Philly or elsewhere. Anything less and the result will be cloudier.

This storyline will play out throughout the season. For now, it’s fair to say that Sanders is running with purpose this summer, impressing his coaches and teammates.

“Hit the hole. Make plays. Pop,” Hurts said of what he saw of Sanders. “We have charts of the top speeds you’ve hit and he’s up there all the time. He hits the hole. He’s hungry too. He’s ready to go.”

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