Sproles calls perception he's a receiver 'crazy'

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Sproles calls perception he's a receiver 'crazy'

If he had his preference, Darren Sproles would universally be referred to as an “all-purpose player.” He doesn’t mind versatile, multifaceted, multidimensional or any other label that describes the Swiss-army-knife options he brings to the running back position.

But don’t offend the man. Don’t call him a receiver.

“Yeah, that’s crazy,” the Eagles’ veteran offensive weapon said last week after the team’s final minicamp. “Half the time I get my catches out of the backfield.”

Sproles, entering his 10th season, has 378 career receptions for 3,381 yards and 27 career receiving touchdowns. He has more career receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns than either Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin, the Eagles’ two starting receivers.

He has more career catches than DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Hakeem Nicks, Jordy Nelson, Mike Wallace and Stevie Johnson and just three fewer than Santonio Holmes. He has as many career touchdown catches as Nicks and one more than Brent Celek.

But the insinuation that the Eagles sent a fifth-round pick to New Orleans this offseason to get Sproles in order to balance their passing attack makes his new head coach squirm. In May, Chip Kelly bristled at the suggestion that Sproles would be frequently aligned in the slot, despite the halfback’s place in league history among running backs with unusually high reception totals.

Since 2007, Sproles leads all NFL running backs with 375 receptions, 3,371 yards and 27 touchdown catches. Only seven other running backs in NFL history have more than 27 career touchdown catches, one of them being Brian Westbrook.

“Everyone thinks Darren Sproles is a receiver. He's a running back,” Kelly said before the spring camps, “and a really, really talented running back.”

It’s no secret that Sproles is expected to get his share of catches in the Eagles’ offense this year, especially since the bulk of carries will go to LeSean McCoy, the reigning NFL rushing champion. Third-year pro Chris Polk, who averaged just under nine yards per carry and rushed for three touchdowns last year on only 11 carries, should get the four or five carries per game that last year were given to Bryce Brown, who was dealt to Buffalo during the draft.

But despite Kelly’s protestations, the team didn’t acquire Sproles to play third fiddle behind McCoy and Polk in the running game. Kelly, an enthusiast of versatility, now has a dimension of his offense that he lacked last year.

He can put McCoy and Sproles on the field at the same time on passing downs, forcing opponents to either match up a linebacker or defensive back against Sproles, which is either a mismatch for the veteran halfback or creates one for someone else, or prompting the defense to dial down the pass rush and play zone, which is an advantage for quarterback Nick Foles.

New safety Malcolm Jenkins, who played the past five seasons in New Orleans before signing with the Eagles, witnessed firsthand Sproles’ impact on an entire offense. The Saints placed top 10 in total offense in all three years with Sproles on the team, top three in two of them.

“It depends on how creative Coach Kelly gets and I’m pretty sure he’ll have something,” Jenkins said. “Somebody is going to get isolated. Even last year it was to that point where somebody is gonna get isolated and you gotta hope as a defense that your guy can hold up on this particular play, and if you do hold up you gotta hold up all day.

“Eventually, I’m sure Shady (McCoy) and Sproles will win the majority of the matchups they get. It’s a good problem for us to have finding ways to get both of them touches and both of them on the field at the same time.”

Jenkins understands why Kelly and other teammates dismiss the idea that Sproles is merely a receiver with a running back’s jersey number. When Sproles signed with New Orleans before the 2011 season, Jenkins had bought into the same perception.

Jenkins said he originally considered Sproles “a third-down back” until he observed perhaps the most unsung weapon in Sproles’ arsenal, a talent that’s become the hallmark for some of the NFL’s elite running backs.

“Pass protection,” Jenkins said. “He’s small so you think you can go here and you’d think he’d be a liability but he’s really, really good at pass protection. He understands it. He puts himself in position to make plays. And he’s not just [cut blocking] everybody, either. He’s standing in there and taking on blocks and then holding up. That’s the thing you’d expect to be his weakness and it’s not at all.”

Being that he’s just 5-foot-6 and barely over 180 pounds, Sproles sees his fair share of blitzers trying to clear him from their path with a simple bull rush, so his technique is already set from the start.

“Now they gotta try something else,” Sproles added.

It’s all part of the perception he keeps debunking, year after year, while at the same time feeding into the image by stockpiling receptions.

“I think Darren has a little Napoleon complex,” Jenkins said. “He doesn’t like when people call him small and things like that, so those are the things that he takes pride in, the hard-working things, the things that take attitude and want-to to do.”

Which is exactly the kind of player Kelly has built his roster around over the past 18 months in turning over the roster from Andy Reid’s final year in 2012.

“We heard from the coaches that coached him what an intelligent football player he is and [we] learned that from the first day he was in this building and how sharp he is and how dedicated he is,” Kelly said.

“I talked to Norv Turner (who coached Sproles in San Diego) and he remarked to me when I saw him at one of the pro days, he said, ‘You'll have to slow him down because he only knows one speed.’ And that's the same thing you see. Darren practices and trains at one speed. It's awesome. He fits in with the culture that we want in terms of preparation, but it's everything we wanted when we got him here.”

Eagles Stay or Go Part 6: Taylor Hart to Donnie Jones

Eagles Stay or Go Part 6: Taylor Hart to Donnie Jones

In the sixth of our 12-part offseason series examining the future of the Eagles, Reuben Frank and Dave Zangaro give their opinions on who will be and who won't be on the roster in 2017. We go alphabetically — Part 6 is Hart to Jones.

Taylor Hart

Roob: No matter how hard the Eagles try, they just can't get rid of Taylor Hart. Chip Kelly drafted Hart in the fifth round in 2014 and then Hart began last season with Kelly in San Francisco before reappearing here later in the season. Hart is going into his fourth NFL season and has 15 games, 12 tackles and no sacks to show for it. He turns 26 next month and has never shown any signs of being a guy who can contribute in a 4-3 defense. I’m going to say he goes, but don't be surprised if he finds his way back onto the roster at some point. 

Verdict: GOES

Dave: Hart was with the Eagles last training camp but cut him on Sept. 4 and he was claimed by the 49ers and Chip Kelly. Then when the Niners cut him, the Eagles claimed him back and he spent the rest of the season watching the Eagles play football. He was inactive in all but the last game and in that one he didn’t play. Hart is a former fifth-round pick who just fits better in a 3-4. The Eagles already played undrafted rookie Destiny Vaeao over him, so it’s time to set him free. 

Verdict: GOES

Jordan Hicks
Cap hit: $796K

Roob: Whenever you blast Chip for getting rid of Shady, DeSean and Jeremy Maclin, you have to mention that he did draft Jordan Hicks in the third round. Hicks, in just 24 games, has become one of the most productive playmaking linebackers in Eagles history. With seven interceptions, he already has the 11th-most interceptions in franchise history by a linebacker, and he led all NFL linebackers with five INTs this past season. Only four linebackers in NFL history have had more interceptions in their first two seasons – Hall of Famer Jack Ham is one of them. But Hicks is more than a ballhawk. He’s a smart, heady linebacker who is stout at the point of attack and is already developing into a terrific locker room leader as well. The future is certainly bright for Hicks.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: He just finished his second year in the NFL, but Hicks is quickly becoming one of the biggest playmaking linebackers in the league. Through the first 24 games of his career, he has seven interceptions. In his first two years, he has 7 INTs, 4 FRs, 1 FF. He’s the fifth player in NFL history to do that in his first two seasons and he’s the only linebacker. That said, Hicks needs to get better against the run and he knows it. Now that he won’t have an injury to heal from this offseason, he plans on hitting the weight room to get stronger and better at stopping the run. He looks like a cornerstone of the franchise. 

Verdict: STAYS

Malcolm Jenkins
Cap hit: $7.5M

Roob: Jenkins had another good year in his third season with the Eagles, although not quite up to his Pro Bowl level of 2015. Jenkins, who turns 30 late next season, is on the books for another four years with some pretty high cap figures — $7.5 million in 2017, then $10 million, $9.75 million and $9.25 million. But as long as Jenkins continues to play at a high level, I don’t see him going anywhere until after the 2018 season at the earliest, when he would count just $3 million in dead money if he’s released. But Jenkins is a guy you'd like to see finish his career in Philly. Hope that happens. 

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: It’s hard to quantify just how much Jenkins means to the Eagles or how much he’s worth. But it’s a lot. The last two seasons have been the best of his career and he’s shown no signs of slowing down. The best Jenkins stat is this: He’s missed just eight defensive snaps since arriving in 2013. Unreal. If the Eagles chose to play him at cornerback last year, he would have probably been their best one. 

Verdict: STAYS

Lane Johnson
Cap hit: $10M

Roob: If he goes, it’ll be because of a third positive drug test. Johnson’s play in the six games he was available to the Eagles was at an All-Pro level. But after two positive tests for banned substances and suspensions of four games in 2014 and 10 games in 2016, he’s now one positive test away from a two-year ban that would essentially end his Eagles career. My gut feeling is Johnson has learned his lesson and won’t take any more chances. That he understands what’s at stake here and isn’t going to risk his career by taking a supplement that hasn’t been pre-tested and cleared. Obviously there are other reasons the Eagles were 5-1 when Johnson played. Those five wins included games against the hapless Browns and Bears and a win against a Cowboys team that wasn’t trying to win. But that said, Johnson’s value is clear. He's a beast. It’s up to Johnson whether he becomes a Pro Bowl offensive tackle or a casualty of the NFL’s substance abuse regulations. I can’t imagine he’ll make the same mistake again.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: A lot was made about Johnson’s suspension voiding the guaranteed portion of his contract. And for a week or so, a bunch of fans were calling into talk radio saying the Eagles should cut him. That was laughable. Johnson is still the Eagles’ best offensive player and as long as he stays on the field and plays the way he did in 2016, he’s going to make most of the money in his contract. He obviously deserves plenty of blame for the way last season went, but he’s a big piece of the future. One more suspension and his career is basically over, so the Eagles just have to hope he doesn’t ruin everything.  

Verdict: STAYS

Marcus Johnson

Roob: Johnson is an interesting guy. Ran a 4.37 so he has wheels, but he didn’t have much of a career at Texas. Then again, Texas didn’t have a legit quarterback while he was there so maybe there’s a lot of untapped potential. The Eagles are so desperate for help at wide receiver they’ll take a good long look at everybody on the roster, even a guy who bounced off and on the practice squad last year. This Longhorn is a longshot to make the roster, but then again, if he catches the football consistently in training camp he’ll give himself a fighting chance.

Verdict: GOES

Dave: The receiver was with the Eagles during training camp and flashed some before getting hurt. He joined the practice squad during the season and was there at season’s end. He’ll be brought to camp but is a longshot to make the roster. 

Verdict: GOES

Donnie Jones
Cap hit: $1.25M

Roob: At 36 years old, the greatest punter in Eagles history (sorry Mat McBriar) showed no signs of slowing down. In his 13th NFL season, Jones averaged 45.8 yards per punt with a 40.7 net – both above his career highs. The most amazing thing about Jones is his knack for dropping punts inside the 20 without hitting very many touchbacks. He had 21 inside the 20 this year with just six touchbacks, and in four seasons with the Eagles he has 117 inside the 20 with just 26 touchbacks. When you don’t have an explosive offense, field position is critical, and Jones is a human field position flipping machine. The Eagles signed him to a three-year extension this year, and he’s now under contract through 2019.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: At times during the last two seasons, Jones has looked like the offense’s best weapon. That’s not a good sign for the offense, but it is for Jones. He’s already the best punter in team history. He’ll be 37 by the time the 2017 season starts, but he just signed a contract and will be the team’s punter for at least a couple more years if everything goes to plan. 

Verdict: STAYS

Pro athletes react to Donald Trump's inauguration

Pro athletes react to Donald Trump's inauguration

A look at some of the reaction around the sports world as Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States on Friday:

Buffalo Bills offensive lineman Richie Incognito on Twitter
"Today is the first day on the road to Making America Great Again #Inauguration2017"

Memphis Grizzlies forward JaMychal Green on Twitter
"Hope these 4 years fly by ? #TimeToPray"

Los Angeles Angels relief pitcher Huston Street on Twitter
"Today we start a new chapter, let's work together, and remember only saying negative without an idea is creating divide, it does not help US"

Indianapolis Colts punter Pat McAfee on Twitter
"Inauguration Day.. Some folks happier than they've ever been.. some folks madder than they've ever been.. what a time to be alive"

Former USWNT soccer player Lauren Holiday , to her infant daughter, on Instagram
"I may not be the president, baby but I'll promise to be your Mom. I'll teach you that your brown skin is beautiful. I'll show you that being a girl and a woman is a privilege. How being incredibly powerful means serving those around you and fighting for those who cannot fight for themselves. I will tell you about Jesus and how he taught us to love unconditionally. We will have many talks about equality and I will always encourage generosity. One day if you ask me what you can be, I will smile and say absolutely anything. I'll tell you whatever it is you choose, be kind. I'll fight for you, I'll cheer for you and I'll love you along the way. But most of all, I'll make sure you're hopeful. So today, baby, I'll choose hope."

Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum on Twitter
"Appreciate you Mr. 44"

Atlanta Hawks guard Thabo Sefolosha on Twitter
"The only President my 2 daughters have known. Feels strange going from them to the new guy. Thanks for the class act Barack and Michelle !"

Former Texas and NFL receiver Jordan Shipley on Twitter
"Heard God's word in the inauguration speech. I care about our country being under God a lot more than I care about politics or parties."

Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul on Twitter
"Thank You!!! #44"

New England Patriots QB Tom Brady when asked on Friday if he called Trump to congratulate him.
"Let's talk about football."