Sproles: Explosive playmaker or aging backup?

Sproles: Explosive playmaker or aging backup?

March 13, 2014, 2:15 pm
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Darren Sproles is set to join the Eagles after spending the last three seasons with the New Orleans Saints. (AP)

Finally, the Eagles went out and acquired someone this week who fans actually like.

In trading for Darren Sproles, the Eagles added another proven, versatile playmaker to an offense that set records for points and yards last year and scored the NFL’s fourth-most points in Chip Kelly’s first year.

Now, with Sproles in the mix, the Eagles have one of the league’s most dynamic return specialists and another pass-catching weapon to keep defenses on their toes. And it only cost them a fifth-round pick.

This has to be their best move in free agency, right? Maybe or maybe not. There are reasons to think Sproles is exactly the kind of player who can help the Eagles get over their Super Bowl hump, but also reasons to think this experiment will backfire.

Let’s break them down with five reasons to like the trade and five reasons to be skeptical:

Reasons to like
1. How bad have the Eagles’ return games been for, what, several years now? Damaris Johnson, Dion Lewis, Chad Hall, Ellis Hobbs, Jorrick Calvin. Enough already. Last year, despite Chip Kelly’s constant emphasis on special teams, the Eagles were still ranked near the bottom of the league in yards per punt return (27th) and kick return (26th). They averaged a measly 6.6 yards per punt and 21.4 per kickoff. For his career, Sproles averages 8.2 yards per punt return and 25.3 per kickoff. And let’s face it: Even if he’s lost a step, Sproles is a smarter, more experienced returner than Damaris Johnson. He’s never fumbled more than three times in a season on all touches.

2. LeSean McCoy’s backups, Chris Polk and Bryce Brown, are good. Better than good. The Eagles are fortunate to have two guys behind McCoy who could step into the starting role and keep the chains moving if McCoy were to get hurt. But neither Polk nor Brown is considered an above-average receiver out of the backfield, so the passing offense changes when McCoy needs a break. Together, Polk and Brown combined for 12 catches last year. Sproles should have that by Week 4. Sproles’ presence allows McCoy to take more breathers without the offense becoming predictable. Preservation will be good for both McCoy and the aging Sproles.

3. The screen game should be insane. Last year, most of Kelly’s screens were bubble screens on the outside to DeSean Jackson. Not as many for Shady. Chip loves screens, and now he’s got more than two options. Actually, with Jeremy Maclin back, Kelly can dial up screens for Shady, DeSean, Maclin or Sproles. Endless possibilities there.

4. The offense just became even harder to defend, which should help in late-season games and the postseason. In one-back formations, with Sproles in the backfield, the Eagles have more of a receiving threat across the middle in their 12 personnel (two tight ends, two receivers). Bucky Brooks of NFL.com pointed out that teams had success last year defending the Eagles with a Cover 1 free-press scheme. But in two-back formations that feature Shady and Sproles, teams can’t run it and leave linebackers in coverage on Sproles.

5. All the matchup problems Sproles can potentially create makes Nick Foles a big winner this offseason. Foles already had Shady, DeSean, Maclin, Riley Cooper, Zach Ertz, Brent Celek, Polk and Brown. He has everything a young franchise quarterback needs to take the next step in his development. Foles put forth a brilliant first season as Eagles quarterback and now he’s equipped with every tool imaginable to follow up with another Pro Bowl season.

Reasons to dislike
You have to worry about Sproles’ age. He’ll be 31 in June, so he’s well past the magic number for skill position players. The Eagles aren’t asking him to start or make a major impact, so this isn’t Ronnie Brown 2.0, but they’re relying on Sproles to beef up the return game, and he didn’t exactly sparkle there last year. He averaged just 6.7 yards on punt returns, his lowest since his rookie season, and 21.3 on kickoff returns, the lowest of his career and a steep decline from his 26.8 in 2012. As disappointing as Johnson has been, Johnson last year averaged 8.3 yards per punt return and 25.7 yards on kickoffs. So he had a better year as a returner than Sproles.

2. Sproles’ production drop-off wasn’t just limited to the return game. Last year, he totaled just 824 offensive yards (220 rushing, 604 receiving), his fewest since 2008 with San Diego. He scored just four offensive touchdowns after scoring eight in 2012 and nine in 2013. He ranked just 35th in all-purpose yards. Makes you wonder: Could the Eagles have used that fifth-round pick on a younger version of Sproles from the college ranks? Someone who’s best years are ahead instead of behind?

3. If they’re going for broke in the twilight of Drew Brees’ career, why didn’t the Saints want Sproles back? He’s perfect for their offense and they’re not exactly loaded with talent in the backfield. It’s not like he was breaking the bank, either. Sproles would have made $3.5 million this year in the last year of his deal. Most teams are trying to hold onto all their offensive weapons, but the Saints felt Sproles was expendable. Has to make you wonder if they felt he’s not nearly the player he once was.

4. He’s not in the Superdome anymore. Granted, Sproles had some fine seasons in San Diego’s outdoor stadium, but he never had 1,000 combined offensive yards in any of his seasons with the Chargers. In his best offensive year in San Diego, Sproles managed 840 offensive yards (343 rushing, 497 receiving). Last year, Sproles averaged 3.4 yards per carry outdoors compared to 4.6 indoors, and 6.8 per catch outdoors compared to 9.5 indoors. There’s no reason to be concerned about his production in September and October, but if he’s here to help the Eagles win a Super Bowl, you have to wonder about his impact in the offense and return game when the calendar turns to December and January. Can he be effective in the cold rain and snow?

5. Remember how Chip tried to force-feed Brad Smith in the red-zone offense? How’d that work out? A lot like Big Red’s attempts to have Brown execute run-pass option plays and make Hall into the second coming of Brian Mitchell. You have to hope Chip isn’t so enamored with his new toy that he goes overboard trying to get Sproles involved in the offense. It seems to happen to all coaches who think they’ve got the key to unlocking the untapped potential of an aging veteran who’s not the player he used to be. You have to hope Chip is realistic about what to expect from Sproles at this stage of his career.