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 wise to bring Jason Peters back, even with full salary

Eagles wise to bring Jason Peters back, even with full salary

This isn't a big surprise, but Jason Peters will be back with the Eagles -- big salary and all -- for the 2017 season.

While the Eagles approached the veteran left tackle about his contract in January, Peters has not restructured his deal, according to a league source. 

NFL Network's Ian Rapoport on Thursday morning reported that Peters will be back next season on his normal contract. 

Yes, Peters is expensive in 2017. His base salary after hitting another Pro Bowl escalator written into his contract is up to $10.45 million for next season (plus a $250K workout bonus), which comes with a big cap hit of $11.7 million. That cap hit is the highest on the team, but not outlandish for a high-caliber left tackle. 

The Eagles could have very well cut Peters and moved on. It would have saved them significant cap space to use elsewhere. They just wouldn't have found any player more valuable to pay with that money. 

Peters, 35, is still their best option to protect Carson Wentz's blind side. He made his ninth Pro Bowl in 2016 after playing all 16 games. The team hasn't been shy about wanting him back and Peters toward the end of the season said he wanted to return for another year. 

"We certainly want to have him back," Eagles vice president of football operations Howie Roseman said of Peters in early January.

“I love him. I want him on the team,” head coach Doug Pederson said with two games remaining this past season. “I don’t want him to go anywhere."

With Peters back, it means Lane Johnson's eventual trip to left tackle will be held off for another year. Eventually, he'll take over that spot … just not right now. 

During the season, Peters opened up about his future, saying he hopes Wentz can be the guy who finally gets him a Super Bowl ring (see story).

Eagles Mailbag: Restructuring Barwin, Allen Barbre, Jason Kelce's importance

Eagles Mailbag: Restructuring Barwin, Allen Barbre, Jason Kelce's importance

We answered half of your questions in the first mailbag this week (see story)

But there are plenty more to go. 

With free agency just around the corner, let's not waste any time jumping into today's questions: 

I don't think so. 

Yeah, moving on from Connor Barwin is going to be tough. He's a great guy and has been a tremendous asset in the community. His foundation is amazing. But on the field, his production dropped while his price tag soared. That's a problem. 

Barwin has said publicly that he'd be willing to take a pay cut to stay in Philly. He's a smart guy and knew there's no way the Eagles are going to keep him around with an $8.35 million cap hit, especially when they can save $7.75 million of that if they cut him. ... So maybe they would keep him at a reduced rate. There's logic in that, but it's time to move on. I don't think Barwin would really want to stay for the pay cut it would probably take. 

Right now, Barwin is blocking Vinny Curry from seeing significant playing time. And while Curry didn't have a good year in 2016, he's getting paid a lot, so it's time to see if he can live up to that contract. 

And for Barwin, while he loves Philly and has made this his home, he deserves to be in a defense that fits him better.

I'm a little surprised more haven't come already. To me, this likely means the Eagles are trying to exhaust any trade options first. Why cut a guy if you can get some kind of return, even a late-round or conditional pick? 

There's no real harm in waiting right now, and maybe the team will find a trade partner for one of their players on the chopping block. 

I always like these hypotheticals from Drew. Basically, I'd keep the youngest and most-talented players:

Carson Wentz, Fletcher Cox, Lane Johnson, Jordan Hicks, Malcolm Jenkins. 

Wentz, Cox and Johnson were pretty easy. Then I really struggled. Jenkins is the oldest guy on the list, but he's so important to the team. I left off Brandon Graham and Zach Ertz and Brandon Brooks and Jordan Matthews, which I'm not so sure about. This was harder than I anticipated. 

I guess you're talking about Allen Barbre's hamstring injury. Yeah, barring something I don't know about, he should be completely healed and ready to go. 

Here's something to think about, though: Barbre will be 33 when the 2017 season starts and I wouldn't put him down in pen as the starter at left guard next year. If Jason Kelce is still on the team, he'll be the center, but why not let Isaac Seumalo battle for the left guard job? 

If Seumalo wins the spot, then Barbre is still a relatively inexpensive and really good backup option. 

I honestly think Jason Kelce is better than most fans in this city think. People see him get blown up a few times in a year — really blown up — and think he's an awful player. He's not. No, he can't go 1-on-1 with nose tackles, but he's still great at getting downfield and into the second level. 

And then there's the importance of the center. I don't know exactly how important he is in terms of calling the shots on the line, but he didn't miss a single snap in 2016. I know cutting or trading Kelce would save significant cap space, but I wouldn't do it. The Eagles have shown they'll do whatever it takes to develop Wentz; I think keeping his veteran center for a second year would help.