Is Gainwell replacing Sanders as Eagles' lead running back?


It’s a trend that’s impossible to ignore. More Kenny Gainwell, less Miles Sanders.

Sanders has been the Eagles’ bellcow running back since the middle of 2019, when Jordan Howard suffered a season-ending neck injury and Sanders stepped in with a terrific second half.

From Week 9 of his rookie year through the end of last year, Sanders averaged 16.8 touches and 91 scrimmage yards in 20 games.  

This year has been different. It’s clear that the current coaching staff loves Kenny Gainwell — and the rookie fifth-round pick has been very good. But Gainwell’s touches have come at the expense of Sanders, who has gone from about 17 touches per game since becoming the full-time starter to 12 per game this year, while his scrimmage yards have dropped from 91 to 68.

The last two games, Gainwell has only two fewer touches than Sanders (15 to 13). This is the first time since early in Sanders’ rookie season he’s had 10 or fewer touches in consecutive games.

What we’ve learned about Nick Sirianni’s offense is that he doesn’t like to run the ball a whole lot, but he loves throwing to the backs. And although Sanders caught 50 passes for over 500 yards as a rookie, Gainwell already has more catches this year than Sanders (13 to 11), and on Sunday he had twice as many catches and targets as Sanders.

Even Sanders has said Gainwell is a more natural pass catcher than he is. And if Gainwell is a bigger part of the receiving game moving forward and the Eagles rarely run the football, it’s not a big jump to wonder about Sanders’ future and where he fits in.

And Gainwell has proven to be a weapon in the red zone. It’s a limited body of work, but he has two red-zone carries, both for touchdowns, and two red zone catches for 31 yards. Sanders has a total of three yards and no TDs on six red-zone touches.

Does Sanders have a future here? 

He’s only 24 and was a second-round pick just two years ago. In the 49ers game, he became the fastest Eagle ever to 2,500 scrimmage yards, doing it in his 29th game. So in a way it seems crazy to wonder how long he’ll be an Eagle.

It’s not unusual for teams to move on from running backs early in their career, but the thing about Sanders is that he’s still a very productive player — when he’s allowed to be. He’s averaging 4.6 yards per rush, fifth-highest among NFC running backs, and 9.6 yards per catch, 10th-highest among all running backs.

But it’s hard to ignore the sense that the Eagles feel that Gainwell, with his speed, elusiveness and receiving ability, is just a better fit for this offense than Sanders, who’s a holdover from the Doug Pederson days.

Sirianni said Sanders has handled his reduced workload professionally, which isn’t surprising.

If he’s unhappy, he’s not letting it show.

“Does he want the football? Of course he does. And that's any good player, any player in general,” Sirianni said. “And that's the same way it's going to be in the receiver room or the tight end room or the running back room. They all want the ball.

“That's a good problem to have, that you've got guys that want the football. And that's our job to get it to them. But there's only one football. And when you are going up and down the field like we did last week, the guys that got the football last week, it was just a product of what was happening. And so, I think the guys see that.”

Sanders is signed only through next year at a relatively cheap $982,294 this year and $1,224,569 next year, and if the Eagles did decide to part ways with him after this season he would count less than $500,000 in dead money in 2022.

Gainwell, playing on a rookie fifth-round contract, is earning NFL minimum of $660,000 this year. He’s under contract on a budget rookie deal through 2024.

Sanders always says the right thing and isn’t one to rock the boat, but it’s hard to imagine he’s happy seeing his touches drop 30 percent from last year.

Maybe the numbers will even out. Maybe in the coming weeks Sanders will regain his role as the Eagles’ No. 1 back. 

But a month into the season, there are two major surprises when it comes to the running back position. 

Gainwell is getting more playing time than anyone expected, and Sanders is getting much, much less.

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