When Miles Sanders went down with a sprained ankle, fantasy managers expected Kenneth Gainwell to be the primary beneficiary. As it turned out, Boston Scott and Jordan Howard were the two providing solid fantasy football value to managers who picked them up and started them. With Sanders returning from the injured reserve, what should we expect the Philadelphia Eagles’ backfield to look like?
Miles Sanders remains the starter and best fantasy option
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Regardless of my opinion on Sanders’ ability, he’s the lead back for the Eagles when healthy. Head coach Nick Sirianni told us this on Wednesday.
Before getting hurt, Sanders’ usage was increasing each week. Early in the season, it was more of a timeshare with Sanders failing to eclipse a 67% snap share in Weeks 1-4.
But in Week 5, things started to change. That week, Sanders played 75% of the snaps and then 83% in Week 6. Although he wasn’t particularly productive, the playing time domination left little room for anyone else to produce.
Jordan Howard and Boston Scott were fantasy-viable in Sanders’ absence
Despite being relegated to the practice squad all season, Howard was not only the best Eagles’ running back but more valuable than Sanders ever was.
In his three games this season, Howard finished as the RB13, RB17, and RB36. In Sanders’ seven games, he finished higher than the RB33 just once — back in Week 1. Scott was also better than Sanders. He finished as the RB12, RB51, and RB21, respectively, in his three games without Sanders.
What about Kenneth Gainwell?
Gainwell is a fifth-round rookie that was treated like a fifth-round rookie. Even though he was active all season ahead of Howard, Gainwell went to the back of the line after Sanders went down. He’s touched the ball a total of 5 times the past two weeks and only had 13 carries in Week 8 because the Eagles were up by five scores in the fourth quarter.
Although Howard was clearly fourth on the totem pole entering the season, Sirianni openly praised his play and said he deserved a role going forward. Given that the Eagles signed Howard to the 53-man roster, he’s here to stay. Gainwell will likely be a healthy scratch on Sunday unless the Eagles activate four backs on game day.
What should fantasy managers do with Sanders, Howard, and Scott this week?
It’s impossible to know exactly what goes through the heads of NFL coaches. The best we can do is take the information we have and make reasonable inferences. After Sanders went on IR, it was reasonable to infer Gainwell would be the next man up. That turned out to be incorrect.
We can confidently say Sanders will lead this backfield based upon Sirianni’s comments. As for who he’ll primarily split carries with, that is a guess. My best guess is it will be Howard.
Howard has been the primary runner and goal-line back in Sanders’ absence. He’s earned the praise of his head coach and a permanent roster spot. Howard also has a track record of being a strong between-the-tackles runner. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him share early-down and goal-line work, with Sanders dominating passing downs.
If I’m correct, that combination would be a nightmare for fantasy managers. Sanders would have the higher floor due to receiving work, but he’d lack the ceiling that comes with touchdown upside. Howard would be a touchdown-or-bust RB3.
The Saints present a tough fantasy matchup for Sanders and Howard
This is a very difficult spot for Sanders to return. The Saints allow the third-fewest fantasy points to running backs. They also allow a very low 17.4% target share to the position.
The Eagles are one of just six teams with more rushing touchdowns than passing touchdowns. On one hand, it shows their commitment to the run. On the other, it’s rare for teams to run for more TDs than they pass for, which means regression is coming.
It goes without saying Gainwell can be left on waivers and Scott left on benches. As for Sanders and Howard, both are startable — but in the right situation. Sanders is a safer start than Howard based on projected usage. However, it is worth noting Sanders was unable to produce better than mid-RB3 numbers before potential goal-line opportunities were at risk.
Howard, meanwhile, is a very risky RB3. I don’t see a world where he ends up being worth starting unless he falls into the end zone. Fantasy managers are likely better off avoiding this backfield, if possible.