Philadelphia Eagles

Sproles calls perception he's a receiver 'crazy'

usa-darren-sproles.jpg

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.”

Dolphins' Nate Allen "can only think of positives" of his time with Eagles

usa-nate-allen-dolphins.jpg
USA Today Images

Dolphins' Nate Allen "can only think of positives" of his time with Eagles

For the first time since he left the Eagles after the 2014 season, Nate Allen found himself practicing at the NovaCare Complex Monday afternoon.

Still wearing No. 29. Just a Dolphins' No. 29 these days.

"It was different," he said. "When I got here, it felt like I was still living down the street. So many memories. All of them good.

"It brought back a lot of memories even when I pulled into downtown, just remembering (the city), staying down there near some places you used to eat. It was good. When I look back, it was just was a great experience for me.”

While Byron Maxwell and Kiko Alonso held big press conferences at a podium for a battery of cameras and microphones (see story), Allen — who spent twice as long with the Eagles as Maxwell and Alonso combined — was 100 yards away quietly talking about his own tenure in Philly.

"Obviously went through ups and downs, but that's kind of the game of football," he said. "But when I look back I can only think of positives. 

"Being with Andy (Reid) and Chip (Kelly) and just the memories and the relationships I've built around here, it was a great experience."

Allen was always a divisive player here.

He was drafted with a second-round pick acquired from the Redskins in the Donovan McNabb deal, and he essentially was brought here in 2010 to replace Brian Dawkins, a year after he had signed with the Broncos. 

Allen became a steady starter with the Eagles but was never a crowd favorite, mainly because he wasn't Dawk. But from 2010 through 2014, he started 69 games, picked off 10 passes, survived the coaching change from Reid to Kelly, reached the playoffs twice.

During that five-year span, only two Eagles — Trent Cole and Brent Celek — played in more games than Allen.

In the last 25 years, only two safeties have played more games in an Eagles uniform than Allen — Dawk and Michael Zordich.

"It was huge being under Andy," Allen said. "You're not going to find a better coach than him, so the fact that I was able to come into that situation and I had some older guys—- like Asante (Samuel), Ellis Hobbs, Quintin Mikell — to take me under their wing and show me the ropes, it was big."

Allen spent the last two years with the Raiders before signing a one-year, $3.4 million deal with the Dolphins this past spring.

“He’s done exactly what we brought him here to do," Dolphins coach Adam Gase said Monday. "His job is to make sure nobody gets over the top and if somebody gets to you, get them down. He seems to be in the right place (at the) right time. He does a great job as far as knowing his assignment. He can help other guys. 

"It’s great having a veteran leader in that room, another one, and his special teams value is very high for us."

Allen, Brandon Graham and Clay Harbor are the only members of that 2010 Eagles draft class still in the NFL.

Anybody seen Daniel Te'o-Nesheim lately?

"I’ve got to give the good Lord thanks for keeping me healthy," Allen said after the Eagles-Dolphins joint practice Monday (see observations). "I’ve been blessed to play for … this is going on eight (years) so yes, it’s been a blessing."

The Dolphins have Allen penciled in as a starting safety opposite Rashad Jones in a back-seven that also includes Maxwell and Alonso.

Eight years after the Eagles drafted him out of South Florida, Allen is an example of what persistence, durability and intelligence can do.

Most players in the NFL are closer to Allen than Dawk. They're not stars, they're just smart and talented and able to play well into their 30s.

What's the difference between Nate Allen of 2010 and Nate Allen of 2017?

“I’m just wiser (and) more mentally in-tune to the game," Allen said. "I’ve just seen a lot now and I feel like I’ve been through different situations and just about every situation you probably can be in. So wisdom, probably.”

Celek, Graham, Jason Peters and Jon Dorenbos are the only players left from Allen's rookie year, but there are 18 players on the team that he played with at some point here and several coaches, including Doug Pederson.

"It's just good seeing those guys," he said. "You build relationships with those guys and obviously we're on different teams but you still have those relationships and it's just great to see them again."

Former teammate Jay Cutler thinks Alshon Jeffery will be just fine

Former teammate Jay Cutler thinks Alshon Jeffery will be just fine

For the last few weeks, there has been plenty of talk about Alshon Jeffery. He was hurt, then Doug Pederson kept him out and then his position coach said he was behind (see story).
 
Turns out, all everyone needed was just a little Jay Cutler perspective on the whole situation.
 
Cutler, in his typical Jay Cutler fashion, said on Monday that he wouldn't be worried at all about Jeffery.
 
"He'll be fine," said Cutler, who was teammates with Jeffery for five seasons in Chicago before joining the Dolphins this summer. "Obviously, I don't know what's going on here, I don't know where he is in the system, what his production's been like.
 
"As long as he's healthy, he's going to produce. He's going to go out there, he's a pro. He knows football, he's got a great feel, great instincts. If he's healthy, that wouldn't be a guy I'd worry about."
 
Cutler and the Dolphins are in town early for this Thursday's preseason game at the Linc and are having joint practices with the Eagles on Monday and Tuesday. Obviously, a big topic of conversation with Cutler was about his former teammate.
 
So a few questions later, Cutler was again asked about him.
 
"You guys are worried about Alshon," Cutler said jokingly. "He's going to be fine. What's going on? Is something going on that I don't know about?"
 
It was explained to Cutler that Jeffery missed some practice time during camp after hurting his shoulder. 
 
"Well, he had a shoulder injury," Cutler said. "What do you want him to do?"
 
Jeffery, who signed a one-year deal to join the Eagles this offseason, played in the Eagles' second preseason game after missing the first. And on Monday, he probably had his best practice since joining the team (see 10 observations).
 
Dolphins head coach and former Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase has said Jeffery is the only player he's ever coached that had him feel comfortable enough to tell his quarterback to just throw it up even if he isn't open.
 
Carson Wentz is still building that type of chemistry with Jeffery, but Cutler remembers what it was like to have a target like that.
 
"You just throw it," Cutler said. "You just throw it out there and he'll make it right. You get a guy like that 1-on-1, you can back shoulder him, you can put him over the top. It's hard to cover a guy like that and I'm sure Carson and some of these quarterbacks have witnessed his ability to catch the back shoulder balls and get on top of guys as well."
 
Jeffery is two years removed from his last 1,000-yard season, but the Eagles are really hoping he can regain the form that led to back-to-back seasons with at least 85 catches and 1,100 yards in 2013 and 2014. Cutler, of course, was his quarterback then.
 
And he still thinks his former teammate has it.
 
"Obviously, he's had a shoulder injury," Cutler said. "He had some injuries for us (the Bears) that were speed bumps for him. But when he's healthy and he's rolling, he's one of the best out there."