Fantasy Debate: Aaron Jones vs. Miles Sanders

Aug 03, 2020
Fantasy Debate: Aaron Jones vs. Miles Sanders

Aaron Jones and Miles Sanders are being drafted just one pick apart, as the 17th and 18th players off the board, respectively, according to 4for4's multi-site ADP. In this debate, Alex Gelhar explains why he prefers the Packers running back while Eric Moody takes a stand for Philadelphia's sophomore stud.

The Case for Aaron Jones

Alex: I can understand why Aaron Jones isn’t quite a first-round fantasy pick. What I cannot understand is why someone would draft Miles Sanders over Aaron Jones. Yes, both backs share some similarities in their 2020 situations and 2019 production, but Jones has the edge in one critical area. Let me explain why.

Both backs face the potential of having work divvied up in committees of sorts. Jones is the clear 1A in the Packers offense, with Jamaal Williams a solid role-player and rookie A.J. Dillon looking for work. Sanders is the presumptive 1A for the Eagles, with late-season wonder Boston Scott and Elijah Holyfield and Mark Warren eyeing up potential short-yardage work. Neither back will enjoy the ideal featured role, but each has a relatively easy path to the workload of a reliable RB1. This was reflected in their workloads last year.

Jones carried the ball 236 times for the Packers, roughly 65.5% of their backfield carries (not including QB rushes and kneel-downs). Sanders toted the rock for Philadelphia 179 times, which accounted for just shy of 46% of the team’s backfield rushes. However, with Jordan Howard and his 119 carries out of the picture, it’s reasonable to expect Sanders to approach a Jones-like share of the backfield carries.

When it comes to passing game involvement, both backs are relatively close as well. Jones was the Packers No. 2 receiver last season, finishing second on the team in targets (68), receptions (49), and receiving touchdowns (tied with three), while his 474 receiving yards were third-most. Sanders posted slightly better numbers on slightly fewer targets, notching a 50-509-3 line. With both teams wide receiving corps lacking either a solid No. 2 option (Packers) or a clear No. 1 option (Eagles), there’s little doubt that either Jones or Sanders will see a massive dip in their receiving workload. Which is great for their fantasy outlooks.

Now, let’s get to the key difference, and it involves fantasy football’s bread and butter: touchdowns. Aaron Jones scored a lot of them last season, and in fact, his 16 rushing touchdowns and 19 total touchdowns were both league highs. Sanders, by comparison, scored six. Now, touchdowns are among the least sticky stats year-to-year and can be extremely fluky or fluctuate wildly based on play-calling/luck/etc..

But high-value opportunities aren’t as volatile, and Jones far out-paced Sanders in quality touches. Jones saw 16.4% of the Packers' red-zone targets (second-most on the team), and 72.2% of the team’s rush attempts inside the five. Sanders notched a respectable 14.7% of the Eagles’ targets inside the 20, but just 28.6% of the rushes inside the five. Sanders converted two of his six attempts inside the five into scores, while Jones converted eight of his 13 attempts. Jones’s 61.5% conversion rate trailed only Derrick Henry (70%) and Ezekiel Elliott (75%) among the top 30 running backs in attempts inside the five (min. seven attempts).

Not only did Jones receive more high-value work, but he was more effective at converting those attempts into touchdowns. Rookie A.J. Dillon could steal some work, but Sanders has to fight with a committee of role players for valuable touches as well. In fact, during Boston Scott’s spurt of productivity, he proved effective in short-yardage spots, scoring all four of his attempts inside the five-yard line (three of them in December in two games versus the Giants).

Ultimately, the Jones vs. Sanders debate is close on a lot of fronts, but selecting Sanders over Jones requires a leap of faith on one of the most crucial fronts in fantasy football—potential for scoring touchdowns. Choosing Sanders means you’re banking on Jordan Howard’s goal-line carries going to Sanders and having him convert a high volume of them. The Eagles offense is a deep unit with a multitude of role players, which can be concerning for a player like Sanders. The Packers offense is much more concentrated through its elite playmakers—Aaron Jones and Davante Adams—which is why Jones is the safer, and smarter pick at this juncture in drafts.

The Case for Miles Sanders

Eric: Sanders immediately became a difference-maker in the Eagles backfield last season. Philadelphia’s second-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft finished as the RB13 in half-point PPR formats. Sanders averaged 15.1 opportunities, 83 total yards, and 12.2 fantasy points per game. He was very effective with his touches finishing with positive fantasy points over expectation. Sanders was splitting opportunities with Jordan Howard for the first half of the season. Once Howard was sidelined by a shoulder injury his fantasy production took off—Sanders was the RB3 from Weeks 11–16. Let’s analyze what his rookie season looked like from an advanced metrics perspective.

A high percentage of Sanders’s rushing attempts (60.3%) were from the shotgun where he averaged 5.1 yards per attempt. Did you know that 57.5% of all of Sanders’s rushing attempts came against light defensive fronts? He also finished the season ranked fifth in juke rate. This advanced metric from Player Profiler isolates a running back’s on-field elusiveness and tackle-breaking power by dividing the total number of evaded tackles by the total number of touches. Sanders had 317 snaps in which he ran a receiving route. He finished 2019 with 1.61 yards per route run according to Pro Football Focus.

Sanders saw bell-cow usage toward the end of last season and that trend will continue in 2020. Boston Scott will be used more as a change-of-pace option in the Eagles backfield. We have Sanders and Aaron Jones projected to finish one spot apart in half-point PPR formats this season. Sanders has the potential to outperform that projection and his average draft position. Let’s discuss why Jones will not meet expectations in 2020.

Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst selected A.J. Dillon at No. 62 overall in this year’s draft implies that the team will move on from Jones after the 2020 season. He rushed for 1,000 or more yards in all three of his seasons at Boston College. He finished his collegiate career with 14 games with 150 or more rushing yards. Dillon surpassed 200 rushing yards in four.

Jones and Jamaal Williams formed a formidable committee last season. Jones averaged 19.1 opportunities and 18.4 fantasy points per game in half-point PPR. He totaled 1,558 total yards and tied Christian McCaffrey for most touchdowns. Jones only needed 236 rushing attempts to record his first season with 1,000 or more rushing yards. A high percentage of his fantasy production was tied to his 19 total touchdowns.

Williams also played 41% of the offensive snaps in 2019 along with averaging 11 opportunities per game. He was clearly second fiddle to Jones, but Williams’s contributions as a pass blocker and receiver out of the backfield shouldn’t be discounted. Both were selected in consecutive rounds during the 2017 NFL Draft by former Packers general manager Ted Thompson. Both are entering the final years of their rookie contracts. McCaffrey became the NFL’s highest-paid running back when he signed a four-year extension with $30.1 million fully guaranteed at signing. It’s highly unlikely the Packers would sign Jones to a massive contract. Green Bay hasn’t given a second contract to a back according to Spotrac since they drafted James Stark in the sixth round in 2010.

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur had been very vocal leading up the draft about his desire to add more workhorses to the team’s backfield. Gutekunst granted his wish with the selection of Dillon. Hope is not a viable strategy in fantasy football and Jones has a number of hurdles to overcome in order to replicate his RB2 finish from last season. If you are on the clock on a fantasy draft this summer you should choose Sanders over Jones.

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