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 draft CB Sidney Jones with 2nd-round pick (43rd overall)

Eagles draft CB Sidney Jones with 2nd-round pick (43rd overall)

Eagles Draft Tracker

The way the Eagles look at it, they've selected two of their 14 favorite players despite having just one first-round pick.

The Eagles selected promising but injured Washington cornerback Sidney Jones with the 43rd pick in the draft Friday evening.

"When we started this process, he was one of the guys we were talking about with the 14th pick in the draft," Eagles executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman said.

"Great character, great player. The injury was a factor here, but we spent a lot of time with our doctors … talking about this situation. For us, it's about what we believe this kid brings to our football team moving forward.

"To get two of our top 14 players in the whole draft? We thought it was a really good opportunity for our football team. … He's a difference maker at cornerback. That's something we've been looking for."
  
Jones, originally projected as a first-round pick, dropped out of the first round when he tore an Achilles tendon during his pro-day workout in mid-March.
 
Jones, who stands 6-foot, 180 pounds, underwent surgery and has said he expects to be healthy and ready to play at some point during the 2017 season.

"We anticipate a full recovery," Roseman said. "We don't know the timetable, but we believe he can be an impact player for us when we do get him on the field."
 
Jones had nine interceptions, six forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, 8½ tackles for loss, 145 tackles in 40 career games.

He was the third member of Washington’s secondary to be selected in Friday’s second round. Corner Kevin King went No. 33 overall to the Packers and safety Budda Baker was the No. 36 pick overall to the Cards.

"The steal of the draft," King told CSN's John Clark of Jones. "He could've been a top 10 pick."
 
Eagles senior director of college scouting Anthony Patch was at Jones' pro day when he got hurt and immediately called Roseman and let him know that not only had Jones gotten injured but he had a tremendous workout before the injury.
 
Roseman said the Eagles' medical team studied numerous players from football and other sports who suffered similar injuries to measure their recovery timetable and determine what Jones' chances of a full recovery were.
 
"Our doctors and training staff not only looked at corners, but we reached out to teams in other sports," he said. "That gave us a lot of confidence here.
 
"There's no insurance for this, but we feel really confident that with our medical team when he gets here he's going to be able to be the exact same player he was before the injury."
 
When will we see Jones on the field?
 
"There'll be no rushing back from this," Roseman said. "We'll do whatever's in the best interest of getting Sidney Jones 100 percent. Whatever the timetable is. We'll defer to the doctors. That will not be our decision."
 
Jones is only the second cornerback the Eagles have taken in the first two rounds in the last six years. They drafted Eric Rowe in the second round in 2015 but traded him to the Patriots, where he became a starter last year and won a Super Bowl ring.
 
Before Rowe, the last time the Eagles spent a pick in the first two rounds on a cornerback was 2002, when they took Lito Sheppard in the first round.
 
The Eagles cut ties with both of their starting cornerbacks from last year, Nolan Carroll and Leodis McKelvin. They signed journeyman Patrick Robinson this offseason and return Jalen Mills, who was their third corner last year.
 
The Eagles ranked second-to-last in the NFL last year allowing 27 pass plays of 30 yards or more.
 
"We just got a first-round talented corner and he's somebody that as Howie alluded to we're not going to rush," head coach Doug Pederson said. "(We're going to) make sure he's 100 percent before we put him out on that football field. This kid is dynamic. He's extremely special on the field."
 
The Eagles have addressed the defense in each of the first two rounds, taking defensive end Derek Barnett at No. 14 overall and Jones in the second round.
 
This is the first time since 2012 the Eagles have gone defense with their first two picks. They took Fletcher Cox and Mychal Kendricks in the first two rounds.
 
Jones is the first University of Washington player the Eagles have drafted since defensive end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim in the third round in 2010 and the first they've taken in the first two rounds since center Ray Mansfield in the second round in 1963.
 
Washington had a home game the day before the Eagles played the Seahawks in Seattle this past fall, and Eagles vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas, in town for the Eagles-Seahawks game, saw Jones in person that day.
 
"They played against Arizona State, and the entire secondary played well," Douglas said.
 
"The thing that jumps out most about Sidney is his length, his feet. Very smooth mover, can easily flip his hips, can carry guys down the field.
 
"He's very instinctive, very route-aware. He has a really good gauge on what the receivers are going to do on the top of their routes. I think he has ideal ball skills."

Forever linked to Reggie White, Derek Barnett wants to create own identity

Forever linked to Reggie White, Derek Barnett wants to create own identity

Derek Barnett was 4 years old when Reggie White played in his final NFL game.

Nonetheless, the two are inexorably linked. And probably always will be.

Barnett broke White's University of Tennessee career sack record this past winter, and on Thursday — 25 years after White played his final game in an Eagles uniform — Barnett joined the team White spent his first eight NFL seasons with.

Barnett said Friday he's actually been in contact with White's widow, Sara, who contacted him after he broke Reggie's Volunteers sack record in the Music City Bowl against Nebraska in Nashville this past Dec. 30.

"She gave me a phone call about a week after the bowl game after I broke the record," Barnett said. "She just congratulated me on everything I've accomplished.

"Even though I broke the record, I told her, 'Reggie's still Reggie. I don't think I'm better than Reggie.' I told her thank you a lot and I really appreciated it.

"It meant a lot. She went out of her way. She didn't have to call me, but I'm glad she did."

Barnett recorded 33 sacks in his college career. White had 32.

Now, let's be realistic. Barnett is not White. Nobody is. White recorded 124 sacks in 121 games as an Eagle — more than one per game.

Add in his six years with the Packers and final season with the Panthers, and White had 198 sacks in his career. That stood as the NFL record until Bruce Smith finished with 200. White still ranks second all-time.

White, inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006, his first year of eligibility, died the day after Christmas in 2004.

It was Sara White who spoke for White at his Hall of Fame induction in Canton, Ohio, and Barnett said he can't wait to meet her in person.

"She lives in Nashville, so when I get the chance, I will go over there and meet with them," Barnett said. "But Reggie White, in Knoxville, is a legend. He's all over the place in the state of Tennessee."

Since White left Philly for Green Bay, the Eagles have drafted exactly one defensive end who's ever had double-digit sacks in a season. That was Trent Cole, a fifth-round pick in 2005.

One guy in a quarter of a century.

Barnett said he actually watched old film of White while he was in college to try and learn from his arsenal of pass-rush moves.

"I watched tape of him at Tennessee because I was trying to put the hump move in my game," Barnett said. "As a pass rusher, I feel like everyone has their own moves and I think that move is for him, probably not for me."

None of this is really fair to Barnett, who found himself being compared to maybe the greatest defensive player in NFL history before his NFL career was 24 hours old.

In an open letter to NFL teams published in the Players' Tribune this week, Barnett said he's proud he broke White's record but ultimately wants to be known for more.

"You might know me as the kid who broke Reggie White's sack record at Tennessee, but that's not the only thing I'm going to be remembered for by the time I leave this game," he wrote.

"Achieving that sack record definitely meant a lot to me, but I would have traded it away in a heartbeat to have won a championship while I was in college."