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.”

More NFL Notes: Texans star WR DeAndre Hopkins not at training camp

More NFL Notes: Texans star WR DeAndre Hopkins not at training camp

HOUSTON -- Houston Texans star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins did not report to training camp Saturday.

Entering his fourth pro season, Hopkins is holding out for a new contract. He is scheduled to make $1 million in salary in the final season of his rookie contract, though the Texans have picked up his fifth-year option.

Hopkins can be fined up to $40,000 for every day he misses camp.

He comes off a huge season with 111 receptions, 1,521 yards receiving and 11 touchdowns despite inconsistency at quarterback and few other receiving options on the Texans.

Houston general manager Rick Smith said in a statement: "We are disappointed DeAndre has elected not to report to training camp with the rest of his teammates. He has expressed his position regarding his contract status, and we have been clear with both he and his representatives of ours. Our focus is on the 2016 season and all of our collective efforts and attention will be centered on that endeavor."

Hopkins was the 27th overall pick in the 2013 draft out of Clemson. He has started all 48 games in his career, making 239 catches for 3,533 yards and 19 touchdowns. He went to the Pro Bowl last season.

49ers: Offensive lineman Anthony Davis reinstated by NFL
SAN FRANCISCO -- Right tackle Anthony Davis was reinstated by the NFL on Saturday after an 11-month retirement that he planned to come back from all along.

The San Francisco 49ers made the announcement ahead of their first day of training camp Sunday under new coach Chip Kelly.

Davis was the 49ers' first-round draft choice, the 11th overall pick, in the 2010 draft out of Rutgers. He was affected by a concussion late in the 2014 season.

On June 5, 2015, at age 25, Davis announced his retirement in another surprising offseason departure last year for the 49ers. He became the fourth prominent San Francisco player to retire in a three-month span, joining linebackers Patrick Willis and Chris Borland and defensive end Justin Smith. The announcement came four days before the team's mandatory June minicamp.

Also Saturday, San Francisco placed nose tackle Ian Williams on the reserve/non-football injury list (see full story).

Bears: LB Willie Young signs to 2-year extension
CHICAGO -- The Chicago Bears signed outside linebacker Willie Young to a two-year contract extension on Saturday.

Financial terms of the contract were not disclosed.

The 30-year-old Young signed with the Bears two years ago after spending his first four seasons with division-rival Detroit. He had a career-high 10 sacks that year before tearing his Achilles tendon in December, but bounced back to play in 15 games with 6 1/2 sacks last season.

Brian Dawkins excited for scout role with Eagles, hopes it leads to something 'bigger'

Brian Dawkins excited for scout role with Eagles, hopes it leads to something 'bigger'

This is how much of a kinship Brian Dawkins has with the game of football.

And it won’t surprise anybody.

“I was in Orlando with my family and we’re passing by a football field, me and my brother in law, to go to the gym,” Dawkins said. “There’s nobody in the stadium. But as I passed by, there’s a certain comfort I have when I see football fields.”

That connection, that bond, to the game he loves and the team he loves has ultimately brought Dawkins back to Philadelphia, where from 1996 through 2008 he firmly established himself as one of the greatest Eagles of all-time.

The Eagles announced Saturday morning that eight years after he was allowed to leave for Denver as a free agent, Dawkins has rejoined the franchise to work in the scouting department (see story).

Dawkins initially joins the Eagles' scouting team as part of the NFL’s Nunn-Wooten Scouting Fellowship, a new program aimed at introducing former players to the world of player personnel and the duties of an NFL scout.

As of now, Dawkins is committed to working with the Eagles through the draft in April.

But both Dawkins and Eagles executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman said this relationship could evolve into a permanent one. And a very important one.

“I’m very excited about this opportunity, I really am,” Dawkins said. “It’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a while and it just so happened we were able to talk about it and get something done with it.”

Dawkins retired after the 2011 season, his third year in Denver. He worked for ESPN from the fall of 2012 through this past football season. He said ESPN did not renew his contract after last year, which opened up the door for him to explore a return to the NFL.

“I enjoyed my time there, I really did,” he said. “But it was one of those things where everything fell into place for me to have more freedom to do other things, and this was that opportunity and it presented itself and I jumped on it and we’re rolling with a fluid situation.

“This is something that I’ve been thinking for a while. I didn’t know it would come to fruition this fast, but here it is. And sometimes, you’ve got to step out of your comfort zone to really see what you can achieve. And so this is something that I’m really looking forward to, to see if this will move to something even bigger.”

Dawkins is with the Eagles at training camp this week, but he will be based for the time being in Denver, where he’s lived since signing with the Broncos and where his daughter is still in high school.

Roseman, very interestingly, revealed on Saturday morning that he has used Dawkins as an informal player personnel consultant, both when he was general manager through 2014 and again since being re-instated in a similar role with a new title by owner Jeff Lurie after Chip Kelly’s firing.

“I’ve (been) always trying to get him here because he’s got such a bright future, he’s got such a great football mind and a great presence and leadership ability, which translates to the front office,” Roseman said Saturday.

“I always think about (Hall of Fame tight end and Ravens general manager) Ozzie Newsome and how he made that transition, and then talking to (Dawkins) during the coaching search, as we were going into the offseason about the team.

“And then he did more evaluations this year for the draft and (we) continued to try to find the right role for him that he felt comfortable with, and when this came along it was a perfect transition for him, and we couldn’t be more excited to have him in the building and helping us as we move forward here.”

Dawkins was a first-team all-pro four times and a Pro Bowler seven times with the Eagles. He made two more Pro Bowls with the Broncos.

It's interesting that the Eagles’ safeties the last time they won a playoff game – 2008 – are now back with the team.

Quintin Mikell, who spent the 2003 through 2010 seasons with the Eagles and made the Pro Bowl in 2009, was a coaching intern last year and currently serves as director of player engagement.

Dawkins said evaluating players comes naturally to him.

“I love it,” he said. “When you get up there in age playing the game, you see young guys come in and you’re hoping they can help the team win that year, so you start to evaluate, even back then.

“So now that I’m out of the game I just take those things that I learned then and apply them now. Evaluating guys and seeing if they can help this team going forward.”

Asked what he wants to accomplish in this role, Dawkins looked up at the NovaCare Complex 50 feet away and spoke in that hyper-intense Dawk whisper we all know so well.

“To bring this place back to someplace when we played, when I played here,” he said. “The energy was completely different. There were expectations every year with what we were going to do, and I’m pretty sure the players would tell you the exact same thing. They want to get this thing back there as well.

“This is a place I feel comfortable. Not just this organization, but the football field, watching tape, having those conversations, I feel comfortable doing those things.”

But Dawkins said he ultimately doesn’t want to limit himself to scouting.

“I’m trying to grasp the whole gamut of football operations, how a team is run,” he said. “So I’m learning about the scouting part of it, but sometimes it’s either you have an eye or you don’t, and I’ve been blessed to have an eye to be able to see talent, so if I can help in that respect I’d love to that, but I also want to learn everything I can about running a football team.”

Roseman and Dawkins both hinted at a major role for Dawkins in the organization moving forward.

Could he one day be the general manager? A team vice president?

Don’t bet against it.

“He’s going to start with scouting and work with Joe (Douglas, vice president of player personnel) and his guys because he’s done that and he’s written evaluations for us,” Roseman said.

“But we don’t want to limit him to that. His ability to communicate to the players … everything that we’re doing that’s different than when he was a player from a strength and conditioning standpoint, from a sports science standpoint, his observations on the team as a whole.

“We’re really going to drop him into a bunch of areas that he’s interested in, but it starts with the scouting department.”

Beyond his individual accomplishments, Dawk played for the Eagles during the most successful period in modern franchise history.

The Eagles have won 19 playoff games, and Dawkins was on the field for 10 of them.

More than half.

“He’s been part of championship-caliber teams, so he understands about what that looks like and the energy and enthusiasm that that has, and he’s been in a defense similar to this, so he knows the responsibilities,” Roseman said.

“He’s also looking at it from a guy who played the position. When he’s watching DBs … when you sit with him and watch him watch safety play, he’s looking for different things than maybe we are maybe as a scouting staff or guys who maybe never played the position.

“He’s able to come into the meetings and impart what he saw, and that helps all of us as we’re evlauating guys and that’s the biggest part of it for all of us. To be able to pick his brain.”

Where will this ultimately lead? Dawkins just smiles and says he has big plans. Bigger than just working in scouting.

“Bigger is bigger,” he said with a gleam in his eye. “Bigger is bigger. I don’t know what bigger is. I just know bigger is not where I’m standing right now.

“So whatever bigger is, that’s what we’re shooting for.”

NFL Notes: Cheifs, Eric Fisher agree to contract extension

NFL Notes: Cheifs, Eric Fisher agree to contract extension

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- The Kansas City Chiefs signed left tackle Eric Fisher to a contract extension Saturday, the first day veterans joined rookies on the practice field at Missouri Western for training camp.

The Chiefs didn't announce terms of the extension, but a person familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press it was a four-year, $48 million deal that includes $40 million guaranteed. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the contract terms were confidential.

Fisher was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft out of Central Michigan, but he struggled to adjust to the NFL his first couple years. He finally came into his own last season, showcasing the talent that the Chiefs hope can make him their left tackle for the foreseeable future.

The Chiefs exercised their fifth-year option on him in May. That means Fisher's total deal spans six years and $63 million.

FALCONS: Jones says injury is minor
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Julio Jones insists the apparent foot injury that has limited him the first three days of Atlanta Falcons training camp is no big deal.

Jones took part in individual work but was held out of team drills for the second straight day Saturday. He was pulled out of the first practice on Thursday. The star wide receiver says the injury is "definitely nothing to worry about."

Jones had his left shoe off and was seen rolling his foot over a ball on the sideline during Saturday's team drills. He has had two surgeries on his right foot.

Jones and coach Dan Quinn haven't revealed details of the injury. Quinn said a key Saturday was seeing Jones "explode and push off it."

Quinn says he expects Jones to have full clearance as early as Sunday.

RAIDERS: GM McKenzie gets contract extension
NAPA, Calif. -- The Oakland Raiders signed general manager Reggie McKenzie to a four-year contract extension.

Owner Mark Davis announced the move Friday night in front of about 100 former Raiders players. Davis said it was time to "reward" McKenzie for the job he had done in his first three years with the team.

McKenzie was originally given a five-year contract back in 2012 to run the team after the death of longtime owner Al Davis. The Raiders struggled at the start as McKenzie tried to rebuild the organization, winning just 11 games his first three seasons.

But a few strong draft classes and the hiring of coach Jack Del Rio last year helped Oakland improve to 7-9 in 2015 and the Raiders are expected to contend in the AFC West this year.

CARDINALS: Nkemdeche, Jenkins out with injuries
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Cardinals coach Bruce Arians says he expects first-round draft pick Robert Nkemdeche to be sidelined for two weeks with a high ankle sprain.

The big defensive Arizona tackle was injured in the first day of rookie camp on Tuesday, but Saturday was the first time Arians has given a timeline for the rookie's return.

Cornerback Mike Jenkins, who signed with the Cardinals on July 19, left Friday's first training camp workout with a broken bone in his hand. Arians said there's no prognosis on how Jenkins will be out.

Tight end Jermaine Gresham left practice Friday with a tight hamstring. An MRI is planned but Arians said the injury is not considered serious.

Defensive tackle Red Bryant sat out Saturday's practice with soreness in an Achilles tendon.