Miles Sanders has been a DIVISIVE topic this offseason - especially on my Twitter timeline. After leaving the Super Bowl-caliber Philadelphia Eagles, he’ll join the rebuilding Carolina Panthers fresh off drafting first overall pick Bryce Young in the 2023 NFL Draft. And no one seemingly knows what to do with him. There is crazy variance when it comes to what running back ranking tier he falls in within fantasy football rankings across the industry. His value is incredibly volatile between different dynasty fantasy football trade calculators. And he’s being drafted all over the place based on our composite ADP. We caught a lot of flak last year for saying why we liked him at his ADP of RB27 on Underdog Best Ball (he finished RB13). Now it’s a different year with the same dilemma and we’re tasked with sorting this mess for all the fantasy gamers out there.
Much like a certain trio of Christmas ghosts, the best way to make an assessment on a player is to look at the past and the future to decide what to do in the present. So let’s take a look at his past offensive line, quarterback, and coach then his future offensive line, quarterback, and coach to figure out how to handle Miles Sanders at his present ADP.
Miles Sanders, RB, Carolina Panthers Player Profile
The Past - Philadelphia Eagles
He’s played his entire career so far with the Eagles and Miles Sanders is one of only six backs in the NFL with a career yard per carry over five yards on 500+ carries. And arguably the biggest factor behind that has been the Eagles' offensive line, which has routinely been one of the best in the league over the span Sanders has been there. Jason Kelce and Lane Johnson have been staples in that line. And it’s quite impressive that they’ve lost megastars like Jason Peters and Brandon Brooks from the 2019-2020 seasons yet were able to replace them with guys like Jordan Mailata and Isaac Seumalo. There’s no question the line has been a plus for Sanders.
Sanders has played under four different quarterbacks but the main focus should be on Carson Wentz and Jalen Hurts as Nick Foles and Gardner Minshew really only played sporadically. Under Carson Wentz, Sanders was an efficient rusher but the big boost was the willingness of Wentz to throw to Sanders out of the backfield. In 2019, as a rookie, Sanders had 50 receptions on 63 targets for 509 yards and 3 TDs. Those 509 yards would have been top 5 for an RB in 2022. The following year in 2020 Sanders was on pace for ~70 targets but both he and Wentz battled with injuries. In that year 70 targets would have tied for top five at the RB position.
Under Jalen Hurts, Miles Sanders easily had his best rushing seasons. He ran for 5.5 yards a carry in 2021 and, in 2022, he had a career high 1,269 yards. That was in large part due to the mobility of the QB and the Run/Pass Option (RPO) where the threat of Hurts running opens up wide lanes for the RB. But the reality is that Hurts, as a mobile QB, capped the upside for Sanders in two major aspects. The first is that Jalen Hurts was not fond of dumping it down to the running back. And we know from research done by Andrew Erickson of PFF that, statistically, mobile QBs do throw less often to the running back than their pocket-passing counterparts. I mean, it makes sense anecdotally as well - if you are Drew Brees you are going to look to get it to a superior ball carrier but, if you are Jalen Hurts, you ARE the superior ball carrier. And the pass isn’t worth the risk. The Eagles were actually dead last in RB targets last year - see if you can figure out a pattern with the other teams that were bottom three.
The other issue often tied to running quarterbacks is the vulturing of touchdowns. And Jalen Hurts was no exception. In fact, Hurts had the second most carries inside of the five yard line in the entire league behind only Jamaal Williams. That’s a big reason why Sanders scored zero touchdowns in 2021 though he did manage a career-high 11 in 2022 in that powerful offense. In full PPR in 2022, Sanders finished as RB15 with 216.7 points but he actually finished as RB15 his rookie year as well with 218.7 points - despite only scoring 3 rushing TDs. That receiving works carries a lot of weight.
For the first two years of Sanders’s career, Doug Pederson was the coach. And he has no fear of throwing the ball to the running back. Jamaal Charles in 2013 got 104 targets in 15 games with him calling the plays. As we mentioned before, in the two years under Pederson, Sanders was averaging 60-70 target paces. Nick Sirriani, however, took over in 2021. And he has a history of splitting the roles. In fact, in all five years as a play-caller, he’s never had the same running back lead the team in both carries and targets. As a side note, this year I expect Rashaad Penny to lead in carries with D’Andre Swift and Kenneth Gainwell splitting whatever limited pass opportunities there are. When you add Jalen Hurts into the mix, I’m likely out on all three of the backs.
One glaring example is the use of screen passes. Doug Pederson in 2019 dialed up 39 screen passes to running backs which obviously benefited Sanders. In 2022, Nick Sirianni only called 11. And, for those that think maybe it's because Miles Sanders forgot how to catch or something, it wasn't just him that was affected. Maybe Boston Scott also forgot how to catch?
The Present - Carolina Panthers
The Eagles are likely to be one of the best, if not the very best, offensive lines in the league once again. So virtually every team is going to be a downgrade to some degree. But this Carolina Panthers line surprised a lot of folks last season - some sites had them ranked dead last in the preseason but, by the end of the year, most metrics had them towards the middle of the pack. This offseason many reputable sites like Pro Football Focus, Pro Football Network, Football Guys etc. have them graded out at least in the top half of teams. I’m interested to see where our own Dan Malin ranks them in our NFL Draft Guide when his article drops later this month. They added Austin Corbett, Bradley Bozeman, and Ikem Ekwonu all last offseason so the line, anchored by Taylor Moton, should gel a bit more with another year together as a unit.
Anytime you have a rookie quarterback, it’s going to be a wildcard. But, if you are going to have a rookie QB, it’s at least nice to have the first one off the board in Bryce Young. It’s also reassuring that he comes from playing under Nick Saban at Alabama in an offense that produces more pro-ready talents than any other team. Young also just played with Jahmyr Gibbs who had the second-most receiving yards per game of any back in college football behind only Northwestern’s Evan Hull. The big knock on Young is that he’s short but that might actually work in Sanders’s favor in terms of targets. On the flip side, if he doesn’t pick things up quickly, it could be an ugly season for the Panther’s offense.
This is where it gets interesting. After Nick Sirianni left, Frank Reich did feed Jonathan Taylor - Taylor had 332 carries and 51 targets in 2021 and, in 2022, he was on pace for 296 carries and 62 targets before getting hurt. Last year 62 targets would have been top five in the league for RBs. We also know that Reich and GM Scott Fitterer believe in the pass-catching ability of Miles Sanders. How do we know that? Well, they told us themselves in a conversation with Miles Sanders that was caught on camera.
When you watch a clip like that and see how not only the front office but Sanders himself truly believes, it’s no surprise that the Carolina Panthers made Miles Sanders the highest paid free agent running back this offseason.
Fantasy Football Verdict For Miles Sanders
It may be an oxymoron, but there is certainly some uncertainty surrounding Miles Sanders. On one hand, he’s changing teams and he’ll be playing with a rookie quarterback. We don’t know for sure if he’s going to get the full workload or if it will be split amongst him, Chuba Hubbard, and Raheem Blacksheer. Running back coach Duce Staley, though he has worked with Sanders in the past, has said he believes you need three running backs in the modern NFL as the position is like “being in a car wreck”. Vegas also has the line set for 7.5 wins suggesting they’re likely a .500 ball club at best. Sanders has had some issues with drops in the past (though Jimmy Graham and Diontae Johnson also dropped double-digit balls from Hall of Fame QBs and that never stopped them). The big issue for folks, of course, is that going from Jalen Hurts and that offensive line to this new one could potentially hurt the efficiency for Miles Sanders - that shiny career five yards per carry could be in jeopardy.
That said, the Panthers offensive line isn’t too bad themselves. And Sanders did prove he was an efficient runner over four years of playing with multiple different quarterbacks. And now he escapes from the quarterback who threw the fewest passes to the RB in the league and has had the most goal-line carries of any player over the last two years. We’ve seen Sanders run for over 1,200 yards before and we’ve seen him have 50 receptions. So we know he’s capable of both. And we know the GM and coach plan to throw him the ball plenty as they practically told us so. The legendary Scott Barrett proved mathematically in his famous article at PFF that targets (not receptions - the targets alone) are more valuable than carries. And that’s in every format, including standard leagues. So, the bottom line for me is that, when I look at our composite ADP that has Miles Sanders as the RB19 off the board, I don’t see many potential three-down backs in that range. If his ADP holds going into our drafts, I’m willing to accept the downsides for a shot at the high-end upside. So that means that, once again in 2023, I am in on Miles Sanders. And if you don’t like that then you can hit me up on Twitter @CoopAFiasco just like everyone else. And we’ll talk about it.