The term ‘Starter’ has passed when it comes to Eagles running backs
PHILADELPHIA — When Javon Hargrave was asked who stood out among the backup inside defensive linemen Saturday after practice, the Pro Bowl defensive tackle sounded like a coach in waiting.
“We don’t really call them substitute players for us,” he said.
Other than that, it’s obvious that players like Hargrave, Fletcher Cox and rookie first pick Jordan Davis will get more reps than Marvin Wilson, Kobe Smith and Renell Wren on the defensive front.
But, it was a nice little nod to the players on the 90-player roster who work really hard to get the attention of coaches and Hargrave ultimately failed to mention second-year DT Marlon Tuipulotu, who showed a drastic improvement from his rookie season.
Earlier in camp, however, running back Miles Sanders certainly showed the importance of what the starter label means to players.
Sanders wasn’t thrilled when reporters pointed out that his reps with the second-team offense had increased from previous years.
“Who made this article?” Sanders said. “If you really look, you’ll see everyone spinning.”
Sanders is right and perhaps the best story to push might have been that sophomore running back Kenny Gainwell and veteran Boston Scott earned the trust of the staff last season and are now deemed worthy of playing a bigger role in this rotation.
Coach Nick Sirianni, who is very fond of Sanders as a player, was quick to protect one of his own who appears to have a chip on his shoulder entering a contract year.
“I don’t know where it came from,” the coach said. “Our backs are turning. Those first three backs, Kenny (Gainwell), Miles and Boston (Scott), they run three plays back and forth for the first two sessions of the period.
There’s little doubt about Sanders’ talent, but he’s yet to paint the full picture of his first three NFL seasons and this is at least his last chance to do so in Philadelphia.
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His biggest problem might be Gainwell, who seems to be penciled in for high-leverage situations like third downs, rushing offense and goal-line work.
The first two parts of this job description for Gainwell make a lot of sense because of his natural skills as a receiver.
“I’ve done this my whole life,” Gainwell said of his receiving skills. “I played quarterback in high school, but I also played slots and played that position in college. I feel comfortable with every spot on the court. I take advantage of my opportunities and whatever happens, I will take my steps and enjoy it.”
At 5-foot-8 and 201 pounds, however, the Memphis product hardly looks like a conventional close-range back, although he did have some success last season that had to do with offensive line and impact. plus one from quarterback Jalen Hurts at the running game.
He had five team-leading rushing touchdowns.
The short yard plan hasn’t looked great in training camp so far, but Hurts is the real cow in short yard situations for the Eagles and will be again in the regular season.
This brings us full circle to this starter tag, which has likely moved to the RB position for the Eagles.
“Miles is our guy,” Sirianni insisted. “…It’s no secret Miles is our man and we like to turn backs, but it’s him.”
The updated, more descriptive language should be Sanders as the “leader,” with Gainwell handling those high-leverage elements, at least to begin with, and Scott blending in as a complement and change of pace.
And if someone gets the hot hand on a particular match day, the roster card is always subject to change.
-John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com’s Eagles Today and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Sports. You can listen to John, alongside legendary sports talker Jody McDonald, every morning from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Birds 365,” streaming live on YouTube.com and JAKIBSports.com. You can reach John at [email protected] or on Twitter @JFMcMullen