Miles Sanders didn’t want to talk about his NFL future earlier this week. He wanted to discuss Rutgers — just like his position coach.
“He’s thinking about the team finishing strong, not worrying about what Mel Kiper says about him,” assistant coach Ja’Juan Seider said Thursday.
But, even if Sanders hasn’t thought much about his NFL future, plenty of others have. NFL teams have sent scouts to Beaver Stadium on home weekends, analysts have already broken down his film, and fans have surely wondered what’s in store for 2019.
So, when Sanders does decide to sit down and discuss his future, what can he expect to find? Let’s take a look:
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NFL draft projections
Former NFL scout Dan Shonka, the general manager of OurLads.com, remembers watching Saquon Barkley last season and being impressed by his backup.
Not much has changed. With Sanders now acting as the Penn State bell cow, Shonka doesn’t feel much differently. The junior running back started off a little “up and down,” but the man who spent 16 seasons scouting for the NFL/USFL still likes Sanders quite a bit.
“If he were to come out, because it’s a weak year for running backs, if he just ran in the 4.55 area, he’d probably be a fourth-round pick,” Shonka said, referring to his 40-yard dash. “If he runs faster, that’s even better for him.”
Sanders ran a laser-timed 4.58 in high school. In the winter of 2017, he clocked a 4.46.
“If he runs a 4.46,” ESPN analyst Steve Muench told the CDT, “I don’t know if he’ll move into the Day 2 conversation, but he’ll move up in the Day 3 conversation.”
Muench mostly agreed with Shonka’s assessment, labeling Sanders a likely fifth-round pick. Both experts cautioned that it’s early but, right now, Day 3 makes the most sense.
“It sounds worse than it is, but I don’t think he’s special in any category,” Muench said. “I think he’s a middle-round back. That’s a guy who’s good enough to play in the NFL, but I don’t think he’s going to be anyone’s primary ball-carrier.”
An early Day 3 back appears to be the November consensus, but that doesn’t mean everyone agrees. The mock draft website DraftTek lists him as the fourth-best running back in the 2019 class, and FantasyGuru lead dynasty writer Russell Clay already ranks him as the third-best rookie RB fantasy option next season.
Clay — who said this is the weakest RB crop in at least four seasons — believes that translates into a second- or third-round grade for Sanders, especially considering Penn State’s recent run at the Combine with its skill-players.
“We’ve just seen some absolute freakshows that make even good RB prospects look mediocre, so he’s in a weird spot,” Clay said. “But what I think makes him special is he’s really athletic, he breaks tackles well, and he’s producing at a Power Five school.”
Coaching staff’s advice
James Franklin has often said that, if a player isn’t a first- or second-round NFL draft pick, than “in general” he should return for another season.
But when Franklin was asked Wednesday night if he still felt the same way specifically with running back — a position where the careers are exceedingly shorter and where it’s exceedingly harder to earn a first-round grade — the head coach deflected the question. He wanted to talk about Rutgers.
But Seider, Penn State’s running backs coach, offered some clarity Thursday morning. If a player can improve his draft stock by 2-3 rounds, Seider said, then it’s a “no-brainer” to return. And if he can’t?
“Then you got to make a decision that’s best for you,” he said.
Both Franklin and Seider said they’d sit down with Sanders and his family after the season. They’ll weigh pros and cons together, attempt to give him all the information and then leave the decision to Sanders and his family.
“I had a kid that left a couple years ago, and the one thing I told him making a decision is, I can’t make a decision for you,” Seider said. “I can give you the pros and cons of each one. But one thing I did tell him is, ‘Once you make that decision, you can’t look back.’
“Don’t second-guess yourself. If you’re leaving, leave. If you’re coming back, come back.”
Analysis: Should he stay or go?
Let’s look at the facts: This is a weak draft class, and no expert was comfortable analyzing the 2020 class so prematurely. (Odds are, however, it’ll be more competitive than this one.)
Based on the experts’ analysis, the worst-case scenario for Sanders in the upcoming NFL draft appears to be getting selected in the fifth round. And, based upon Seider’s take, that means he should consider returning if he thinks he can become a second- or third-rounder in 2020.
But, even if Sanders improves every attribute, that’s no guarantee. In other words, staying another year is a gamble with limited upside.
Now, players like Sanders could weigh a whole host of pros in regards to staying. Maybe he’s happier here, maybe he wants to pursue a(nother) degree, maybe he wants to max out in college first. But, based purely along NFL draft stock and football lines, it’d make the most sense for Sanders to leave early.
There’s clearly some interest there. Seider acknowledged that the two talked about the draft early in the year. And Seider remembered telling him, “You haven’t done anything yet. Go play ball; let’s make it a hard decision at the end of the year.”
But, purely along football lines, it really isn’t. He’s got an NFL future now. With a limited risk/reward in staying, why postpone the inevitable?