What a difference a year can make.
Going into his rookie season, Miles Sanders was expected to play a bit part in an ensemble cast of running backs that featured veterans Darren Sproles and Jordan Howard, as well as third-year pro Corey Clement.
And at the beginning of the season, that is exactly what he was. Sanders made big plays here and there on offense and special teams but was not the featured back. But then injuries began to ravage the running back room.
Sproles, Howard, and Clement all succumbed to injuries, giving way for Sanders and practice squad call-up Boston Scott to take the reins in the backfield. Sanders quickly blossomed into the Eagles' go-to weapon on offense, breaking franchise rookie records for rushing yards (818), yards from scrimmage (1,343), and all-purpose yards (1,641).
"He flashed last year. He worked hard. He got to know the offense – the passing game and the running game and running routes also out of the backfield. His hands got better. You saw a kid get better every week," Assistant Head Coach/Running Backs Duce Staley recently told reporters.
But heading into this season, Sanders is expected to be a lot more than just a bit player. The Eagles did not go out and bring in another experienced running back to the roster, which means Sanders is receiving top billing for his role in the offense in 2020. Because of this, fans and pundits, especially those who follow fantasy football, are expecting big things from the former second-round pick.
Sanders' starring role comes with a lot of responsibility, however. With Howard departing for Miami and Sproles retiring into a personnel consultant role within the Eagles' football operations department, Sanders is now forced to grow up quickly and become a leader in the running back room in only his second season. That means being more vocal and setting a good example for the other running backs to follow.
Staley was effusive in his praise of Sanders when he spoke to reporters, as he believes Sanders can indeed handle his expanded role. But does Sanders carry that same confidence? If his declaration that he is gunning to be the league's Most Valuable Player is any indication, the answer is unequivocally yes.
"I'm just excited to do whatever I can to help this team win, whether it's on the ground or if it's in the air," Sanders told reporters on Sunday.
Although Sanders considers it a blessing to be the featured ball carrier, he knows he will have to be even better than he was during his historic rookie season if he is going to reach his lofty goals.
One area of his game he has focused on during the offseason was getting stronger. Sanders estimated he left between 200-300 rushing yards on the field during his rookie season because he could not run through tacklers as much as he wanted to. That extra yardage would have put him over 1,000 for the season.
"Looking at my film honestly, I just wanted to get stronger, upper body and lower body-wise. Just stronger altogether," Sanders said. "I want to break more tackles. Just show a little bit more on the ground."
Sanders believes he's ready for his leading role. Staley and the rest of the Eagles believe he's ready, too, and Eagles fans are hoping his performance in 2020 is an improvement on the tour de force he put on display in 2019.