I am late to the party, but I prefer to consider myself ‘fashionably late.’ I ignored the invitations all last season, throughout this offseason. While talented, Miles Sanders simply had too large of volume concerns to be considered a dependable fantasy asset, especially at his current average draft position in startups. Almost accidentally, I uncovered the data that finally drove me to the party and dropped me firmly amidst the dance floor.
I originally attempted to look at fantasy RB1 and RB2s from the past decade to find strong correlations between various stats and production. I continued to come up with snake eyes, beyond the fairly obvious conclusions: the more a player touches the ball, the more likely a player is to score fantasy points (a minimum of 300 total touches resulted in 88% of the players finishing as a top-12 fantasy running back); and the more catches they secure in a points per reception league, the more fantasy points they score (players with at least 60 catches were 75% likely to finish as an RB1). However, I began to narrow my search to only RB1s and look more specifically at total touches. In this data is where my epiphany with Sanders occurred.As the NFL has moved more towards the running-back-by-committee approach as of late, I chose to look at the past five seasons only and the backs who were top-12 at their position in that timeframe. Since 2015, 38/60 RB1s had 275 or more total touches. This data means that 275 touches is by no means a requirement for a back to finish as an RB1, however, those who hit that threshold were 83% likely to be a fantasy RB1 (39/47). Of those eight who had 275 touches and did NOT finish top-12, it appears receptions and yards per touch are important measures which impact their failure to be a top fantasy back.
For comparison, the 39 RB1s with at least 275 touches in that same span averaged 54 catches and 5.1 yards per target.
Let’s now turn our attention specifically to Miles Sanders. I mentioned the soaring ADP which had me feeling uncomfortable with drafting him in the early rounds of a dynasty startup, let alone in the middle of the second round.
After all, Doug Pederson loves his running back committees and thus Sanders would have to rely on being extremely efficient if he were to not receive a lot of touches. However, if he could somehow manage 275 touches, he would be set up for a solid opportunity to be a fantasy RB1 beginning in 2020. In a ‘committee,’ can Sanders still demand enough touches to nearly guarantee top-12 status?
Let’s address the Doug Pederson narrative first. Since taking over as the head coach of the Eagles, Pederson’s running backs have averaged 452 touches per season. While he has regularly deployed multiple backs, Miles Sanders actually garnered the highest percentage of running back touches amongst Pederson-led teams, with 48% in 2019. In the years prior the leading running back handled 36%, 40%, and 30% of the total running back touches, so Sanders already was given much more opportunity as a rookie than Eagles backs were accustomed to.
Diving deeper, beginning in Week 11, Sanders handled 63% of the touches out of the backfield. Yes, injuries were a factor, as Jordan Howard was injured in the previous game and missed the remainder of the season. With Boston Scott and to a lesser degree Jay Ajayi still in the mix, Sanders still was entrusted with the majority of the touches in the remainder of the games. The seven-game sample size to close out the season is decent, and Sanders now enters 2020 atop the depth chart. Also, let’s not forget Howard has been a productive NFL back in his career, so losing touches to him as a rookie is not indicative of his failure to perform.
Now, I don’t love taking small sample sizes and extrapolating, as that more often than not fails to produce realistic outputs. However, with the running back depth chart in Philadelphia mirroring that which we saw in the final seven games of 2019, it is not unrealistic to expect Sanders to come closer to 60 - 65% of the running back touches in 2020. Additionally, some beat writers have even considered the fact that Pederson may forgo a ‘committee’ approach and entrench Sanders as the main back in that offense. If the Eagles provide ~450 running back touches as has been the average in Doug Pederson’s tenure, and Sanders receives 62-63% of those touches, he would be in line for 280 touches. After catching 50 balls as a rookie, and averaging 5.8 yards per touch, it is extremely unlikely that a 275-touch Sanders would join the other eight since 2015 who finished outside of the top-12. Even if efficiency drops a bit overall, Sanders showed in the final seven weeks of the season that with more touches, he can maintain a solid yards per touch (5.2).
While I am not a stat projector, I would expect Sanders to settle in around 60 catches, 220 carries, and 1400 total yards. Those numbers place him firmly in the mid-RB1 range and would be an excellent return from a 23-year-old running back with many promising years ahead.
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