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.”

Worst to first? Eagles' years of nightmares in secondary appear over

Worst to first? Eagles' years of nightmares in secondary appear over

A year ago, Rodney McLeod was a St. Louis Ram, Ron Brooks was a Buffalo Bill, Jalen Mills was an LSU Tiger, and Malcolm Jenkins and Nolan Carroll were part of a secondary that allowed the seventh-most touchdown passes in NFL history.

Now look at them.

This disparate group of holdovers, free agents and one late-round draft pick has come together to become the hottest secondary in the NFL.

The Eagles are 3-0, and rookie quarterback Carson Wentz has garnered most of the attention for the quick and unexpected start, but the defense has been astonishing, and the secondary has been a remarkable surprise.

Through three games, the Eagles have not allowed a touchdown pass, have allowed only 13 completions of 15 yards or more and have yet to allow more than 85 net passing yards in the second half of any game.

The Eagles, who allowed a staggering 36 touchdown passes last year — most in franchise history and seventh-most in NFL history — are the first team since the 2009 Broncos to not allow a passing touchdown the first three games of the season. (The Seahawks haven’t either.)

They’ve allowed just one pass play over 20 yards in the second half of their three games and only five pass plays longer than 13 yards after halftime.

They’re also one of only 10 teams since 1978 — nearly 40 years — to record three or more interceptions while allowing no touchdown passes through three games.

The three starting quarterbacks the Eagles have faced — Robert Griffin III, Jay Cutler and Ben Roethlisberger, all Pro Bowlers at some point in their lives — are a combined 16-for-41 for 193 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions in the second half. That’s a 33.9 passer rating.

Don't forget, from 2009 through last year, the Eagles became the only team in NFL history to allow 25 touchdown passes in seven straight years.

Now they’re at zero.

How can a secondary that just formed this spring be playing at such an astounding level?

Obviously, they benefit greatly from the best defensive line in football. When there’s that much pressure on the quarterback, it makes life simple for the back end.

But this goes way beyond that.

Credit goes to Howie Roseman for putting this group together, holdover secondary coach Cory Undlin for giving them their swagger, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz for finding the best ways to use them, and to the players themselves for making up for their lack of experience together with tireless work on the practice field and film room.

The Eagles may have just gone from the worst secondary in football to the best.

“It’s just guys out there trusting other guys and having confidence in each and every guy in the secondary and knowing that the guy next to you is just going to line up and do his job,” Mills said.

“We over-emphasize communication at practice because we know when we get into the Linc it’s going to be crazy loud, the fans are going to be on their feet yelling and screaming and giving us all their energy, so we know our communication has to be on point.  

“Our preparation also comes off the field. Extra film study as a group. Going out and eating together. Having more than just football time. Just learning guys and getting close to guys.”

The Eagles have allowed just 27 passing first downs, fewest (on a percentage basis) in the NFL. Opposing QBs have a 66.1 passer rating, third-lowest in the league (behind the Cards and Chiefs). And the Eagles have allowed the eighth-fewest passing yards, which is nuts considering the Eagles have had early double-digit leads in all three games, forcing teams to throw.

“I still think we have a lot of room to grow,” Carroll said. “We can’t get too far ahead of ourselves. It’s three games, but I feel like every single week we keep improving, keep fixing our mistakes.

“We really play with a different type of attitude. I think we need to continue to do that every single week and just focus on one game at a time and it’s going to help us down the road.”

We are seeing cornerbacks playing aggressive and tight to the ball, which has resulted in a few pass interference calls but also has dramatically limited big plays. We’re seeing exceptional tackling, which has tremendously reduced yards after the catch. And the safety play has been outrageous. McLeod has playing at a Pro Bowl level, and Jenkins has been off the charts.

Consider this: Roethlisberger has the eighth-highest yards-per-attempt of any quarterback in NFL history at 7.9.

On Sunday, he averaged 5.8 yards per attempt, and in the second half he averaged 4.2.

The Eagles are off this weekend before playing four of their next five games on the road.

They’ll face a huge challenge a week from Sunday from Lions quarterback Matt Stafford, one of two quarterbacks who threw five touchdowns against the Eagles last year.

Then it’s Washington and Kirk Cousins, undefeated Sam Bradford at the Linc, record-setting Dak Prescott in Dallas and two-time Super Bowl-winner Eli Manning at the Meadowlands.

So things sure don’t get easier. It will be fascinating to see how this group, which should get corner Leodis McKelvin back for Detroit, responds to the challenge.

“I don’t think we have a ceiling,” Mills said. “As long as we stay focused and keep grinding every day, I don’t think we have a ceiling.”

Can this defensive backfield go from worst to first in one year? Remains to be seen. There’s a lot of football left to be played.

But it sure seems like years of secondary nightmares — from Nnamdi to Cary Williams to Byron Maxwell — are over.

“I can’t speak for anyone else or on anything else that happened before,” Brooks said. “But we are just playing ball, having fun, and kicking ass while doing it.”

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Another award: Carson Wentz named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Month

Another award: Carson Wentz named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Month

Three games into his NFL career, Carson Wentz might need a bigger trophy case.

The 23-year-old, who picked up his first NFC Offensive Player of the Week award for his performance against Pittsburgh, has been named the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Month for September.

Yes, Wentz's first NFL month was a special one.

The No. 2 pick from North Dakota State has completed 64.7 percent of his passes for 769 yards, five touchdowns and zero interceptions. He's the first rookie in NFL history to put up those numbers in the first three games of a career. And his 102 straight passing attempts without an interception is also a rookie record.

It's hard to believe that a little over a week before the season began, Wentz was scheduled to be the Eagles' third-string quarterback and have a redshirt year. That all changed when de facto GM Howie Roseman traded away starter Sam Bradford and the team decided to start the rookie.

While many thought the decision to start Wentz was the beginning of a long rebuilding year, the rookie has the Eagles off to a fast 3-0 start. Wentz has played very well, but has also been aided by a stout defense, led by NFC Defensive Player of the Month Fletcher Cox.

This week, Wentz is spending some time hunting while the Eagles are on their bye week. He bagged another trophy on Thursday.

The team will be back in action on Oct. 9 in Detroit to face the Lions.

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