"Just [to] get the respect that I finally deserve," he said. "That's all."
Sanders' comment came on the heels of reports that he was working with the second-team offense during practice earlier that week -- a fact, but one that didn't have much significance. Sanders is considered the starter heading into the season and that's simply how the running back rotation fell that day, coach Nick Sirianni said, but the further the comment traveled away from the source, the more meaning it took on.
Sanders took notice. The next day, he opened practice by ripping off a long run, prompting Sirianni to jokingly shout, "He's in with the ones!" The following practice, Sanders again broke off a big gain -- legs churning, arms pumping and maybe a hint of steam coming out of his ears -- and finished it by pointing to the crowd where a portion of the media was gathered while offering some words that were just out of reach to be heard. Probably for the better.
There's no doubt about it: Sanders has an edge to him entering the 2022 season, which is also a contract year for him. We probably should have seen it coming. In May, he said he was taking the upcoming season "a little personal," explaining that he was "nowhere near satisfied with how I played or my availability."
Sanders finished with 754 yards rushing with zero touchdowns in 12 games last season and added 26 receptions for 168 yards. Injuries have limited his production over the past couple of years. Last season, an ankle sprain and a broken hand cost him a total of five games. The timing of the ankle injury couldn't have been much worse. He went down on Oct. 24 early in a game against the Las Vegas Raiders -- the very week the coaching staff first adjusted their offensive approach to be run-heavy. Sanders missed three games while rookie Kenneth Gainwell, Boston Scott and Jordan Howard, as well as quarterback and catalyst Jalen Hurts, took advantage.
Staying healthy has been at the top of Sanders' mind in the months since. Sanders, 25, split his time training in Houston and his hometown of Pittsburgh this offseason. He took a holistic approach, doing more muscle cardio and full-body workouts. He said he's been spending more time in the Eagles' training room this spring and summer doing preventative care instead of only going in when his body is banged up.
"I can see it in his arms, his legs, he put on a lot of good strength," Gainwell said. "He came into this year ready to ball, ready to do his thing."
"Explosiveness," added offensive coordinator Shane Steichen, when asked what he's seen out of Sanders this summer. "We know he's an explosive player, but even in individual, the way he's running, he's running hard, he’s taking care of the football, he’s hitting it, he’s seeing it well. He made a few plays the other day where he jump-cut through the line of scrimmage and hit it. I mean, it's been good to see."
The talent has been evident since Sanders, the 53rd overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft out of Penn State, came to Philly. He set a franchise record for rushing yards by a rookie (818), passing LeSean McCoy, while leading his class in all-purpose yards (1,641). He ranks third among running backs in yards per carry (5.08) since 2019 (minimum 300 attempts) behind only Nick Chubb (5.34) and Jonathan Taylor (5.28).
It's the consistency -- especially as a pass-catcher -- and the availability that's been lacking.
The time to put it all together is now. Gainwell, the team's fifth-round pick in 2021, had a solid rookie campaign with 544 total yards and six touchdowns. If Sanders goes down with an injury or doesn't play up to expectations, Gainwell's opportunities could increase along with Scott's.
"Kenny is a great player. Definitely made big-time plays for us last year. Catches the ball well, runs the ball well, hits the hole. He does a really great job," Hurts said. "Coming in now, I've seen his mindset change, I've seen his approach to things change. I know he's hungry, and I love a hungry guy on my team, so I'm excited to see him go at it this year."
And there's the matter of Sanders' rookie contract, which is up at the end of the year. It's possible he gets a new deal during the season like tight end Dallas Goedert, cornerback Avonte Maddox and defensive end Josh Sweat did last year to keep them away from free agency, but it could take a strong showing to convince the Eagles to allocate big dollars to a position that has been generally devalued leaguewide in recent years.
"I'm not really worried about the contract, not as much as you guys think I should," Sanders said earlier this offseason. "I'm just trying to keep it focused on the season and less on the contract and any of that extra stuff."
But the stakes are clear: Play well and a sizable payday will follow, whether it be in Philly or elsewhere. Anything less and the outcome becomes more cloudy.
That storyline will play out over the course of the season. For now, what can be said is Sanders is running with purpose this summer and impressing his coaches and teammates.
"Hitting the hole. Making plays. Bursting," said Hurts of what he's seen out of Sanders. "We have charts where it has the top speeds you hit, and he's up there all the time. He's hitting the hole. He's hungry as well. He's ready to go."