Replacing DeSean: I see you, Darren Sproles

Replacing DeSean: I see you, Darren Sproles

82 receptions, 1,332 yards receiving, nine touchdowns; that’s what the Philadelphia Eagles must replace in the NFL’s No. 2 offense after the release of DeSean Jackson. Where’s it supposed to come from? Not necessarily from any one player. In this four part series, we examine whose roles will increase as a result of the move. [ Part 1: Jeremy Maclin ]

As some readers may recall, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the Eagles’ trade for Darren Sproles. Why send a draft pick for a 31-year-old running back coming off of what was in many respects his least productive season in years? When there were younger Sproles clones in the draft, even one or two available to sign as free agents?

I must say though, I have a greater appreciation for the move to add Sproles now that DeSean Jackson has been released. There is little doubt the organization’s intention to part ways with their three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver played a huge role in the decision to send a fifth-round pick to New Orleans.

At this point, you may be wondering to yourself, “How does a running back replace one of the most explosive deep threats in the NFL?”

Simple: Sproles is a running back in name only.

Yes, he may line up in the backfield on most plays. He’s even capable of taking a handoff or two. Yet the Eagles didn’t acquire Sproles for his ability as a ball-carrier—they have LeSean McCoy to do that.

Sproles is primarily a pass-catcher, dare we say a receiver even. He’s posted more receptions than he had rushing attempts the past two seasons and in three of the last four, and that’s just measuring actual touches. Clearly, Sproles is being used on more passing routes than he is in any type of traditional running-back capacity.

In fact, Sproles will actually line up as a slot receiver from time to time, where he often draws mismatches against linebackers in man-to-man coverage because the defense still has to respect the possibility of a run when he's out there. That’s a tremendous quality to have in a weapon, especially for an offense that bases its play-call in part on the defensive personnel on the field.

Okay, but that still doesn’t make up for the loss of Jackson’s speed and big plays down the field.

What you need to understand is the Eagles aren’t going to easily replicate every aspect of Jackson’s game down to the last detail, and they don’t necessarily have to, either. If the goal is only to replace a player’s physical output—numbers—Sproles can be of service.

Jackson came up with a career-high 82 receptions last season, but over a six-year NFL career, he’s averaged 4.1 catches per game. That works out to 65 receptions per 16-game season.

Over three seasons with the New Orleans Saints, where Sproles really came into his own, the nine-year veteran averaged 5.3 catches per game. That’s 85 receptions over 16.

Obviously, the difference in what happens after those catches are made is enormous. Jackson’s 17.2 yards per catch ranks fifth among all active players, and is nearly twice Sproles’ career average of 8.9.

That doesn’t render Sproles’ receptions meaningless though. If nothing else, it’s one more outlet for Nick Foles in Jackson’s stead, a reliable safety blanket for a young quarterback who just lost his No. 1 target.

Even if Sproles is only replacing Jackson’s volume instead of his production, those plays can still help move the chains and keep drives alive. The offense may even become more efficient to a degree as a result of the increased emphasis on short and intermediate routes.

65 percent of Jackson's targets resulted in a completion in '13 compared to 80 percent of Sproles'.

And Sproles’ role in the offense may not be quite as dissimilar to Jackson’s as we’ve been trained to think. Yes, DeSean was primarily used to stretch defenses on the perimeters or from the slot. However, we also saw a fair amount of Jackson being deployed from the backfield in Chip Kelly’s offense last season.

Jackson acquitted himself in the role nicely, but with all due respect, that’s how Sproles makes his living.

No, Sproles isn’t going to strike fear into the hearts of safeties or rank among the leaders in receptions of 40-plus yards. An Eagles offense as a whole that led the NFL last season with 80 passing plays of 20-plus—12 more than the second-place Denver Broncos—naturally will not possess quite the same quick-strike ability.

Rather than an offense that constantly swings for the fences, the Eagles might be forced to attack defenses with a death-by-1,000-cuts mentality from here on out. With Sproles now in their employ, they appear to be built to do just that.

Of course Doug Pederson has actually run up the Rocky steps

Of course Doug Pederson has actually run up the Rocky steps

Doug Pederson sat down with Matt Mosley and Ed Werder on their Doomsday podcast recently to talk some NFC East football.

They caught Doug during his son's little league baseball game and chatted about topics ranging from Carson Wentz's rookie year, the Dallas Cowboys, Sidney Jones, and the addition of a plethora of weapons on offense.

Doug sees a Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz-dominated NFC East for years to come. Coach Pederson was impressed by the way Prescott carried himself on and off the field. Doug pointed out that Dak didn't have to do anything remarkable for the Cowboys to win games which allowed him to simply be himself.

Perhaps that's something Wentz will benefit from in year two with so many more weapons around him.

Things got a little fluffy as the interview went on and they asked Doug if he's actually run up the Rocky steps before.

The "Rocky steps" of course being the steps in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And of course he has.

"I have. I actually have," Doug said. "In fact, several years ago when I was an assistant coach, family and friends would come visit for home games so I had to be the tour guide. I would escort them down to the steps and we would make that ascent to the top of the steps. I've done it a few times now.

"When you get to the top of the steps and you turn around and you're looking right down the Parkway, right into Center City, with the cityscape of Philadelphia, you can't help but raise your arms."

Doug adds that he's a provolone with onions on his cheesesteak and that he still refers to the Eagles' owner as Mr. Lurie.

"I'm going to keep calling him Mr. Lurie until hopefully one day I can stand on that podium and hoist the Lombardi trophy. I'll probably use his first name at that point."

You can listen to the full conversation with Doug right here.

 

Eagles OTA storylines: Jeffery in uniform, rotations, awkwardness

Eagles OTA storylines: Jeffery in uniform, rotations, awkwardness

The Eagles will finally be playing football this week. Sort of. 

Tuesday morning marks the beginning of Organized Team Activities (OTAs), the first time most of the 2017 Eagles will be on the field together. 

While OTAs are technically voluntary, the Eagles — and every other team — will have near-perfect attendance. For the Birds, that will include Brandon Graham, who was reportedly set to holdout, but rejoined the team just a few days after leaving (see story)

The Eagles will have a few rounds of OTAs (May 23-25, May 30-June 1, June 5-6, 8-9) leading up to the mandatory minicamp in mid-June. The mandatory minicamp runs from June 12-15. After that, the team is off until training camp. 

Thanks to the CBA, there are strict rules for what teams are allowed to do during OTAs. Players wear helmets but aren't allowed to wear pads, which means no contact. Also no 1-on-1 drills, but 11 on 11s are allowed. So there's at least some competition. 

Annual yearly warning: Be wary the stories of greatness from players in shorts in May. 

Last year, there were a ton of juicy storylines with a new coaching staff, a No. 2 pick quarterback and the Sam Bradford drama. By comparison, this year is boring, but the Eagles never lack drama. 

Here's what to watch this year: 

A new No. 17 
The Eagles' biggest free agent acquisition will be on the team for his first full-team practice. Alshon Jeffery is the type of receiver the Eagles desperately needed. He'll immediately become Carson Wentz's No. 1 weapon this season. 

So Tuesday will offer a first look at Jeffery and the other new pickups, including Torrey Smith, Timmy Jernigan and LeGarrette Blount. 

During rookie minicamp a couple weeks ago, third-rounder Rasul Douglas said he was looking forward to lining up across from Jeffery this week. He'll finally get his chance. 

Carson in Year 2
This time last year, Wentz was the Eagles' third-string quarterback, preparing for a redshirt rookie season. 

Now, he's the not just the starter but the young leader of the team and the face of the franchise. While he was already seemingly in command of the huddle as a rookie, expect him to continue to grow into his leadership role. Sometimes these things just take time. But he is already one of the unquestioned leaders of the team. 

Also, we'll see if there's any notable difference in his mechanics after working out with QB guru Adam Dedeaux this offseason. The main thing they worked on was footwork. We'll see if it helps limit the amount of throws Wentz sails — perhaps his biggest issue as a rookie. 

The rotations
We won't be able to learn a heckuva a lot from watching practices because football isn't meant to be played in shirts and no pads, but we will at least get to see who lines up with who. 

Because 11 on 11s are allowed, we'll get a glimpse of what the first, second and third teams look like. Will Allen Barbre start off as the first-team left guard? Who is the starting defensive end opposite Brandon Graham and on which side? Is LeGarrette Blount ready to run with the ones? 

Kelce and Kendricks
Jason Kelce and Mychal Kendricks are still on the roster after plenty of speculation this offseason that they'll be gone. And there's still a chance one or both could be traded. 

To their credit, both have been very professional throughout this process and both have been at the facility this spring. It's a part of the business, but it has to be a little weird to show up to work every day knowing you might be dealt. 

Hopefully, they'll make themselves available to answer a few questions. 

MIA
While Sidney Jones is still recovering from his Achilles tear, even if he wasn't, he wouldn't be allowed at the facility this week. Jones and his college teammate Elijah Qualls went to the University of Washington, which operates on a quarters system. 

It's a stupid rule, but the NFL doesn't allow players who went to schools on quarters systems to be in voluntary camps until they graduate. That might not seem like a huge deal, but for a guy like Qualls, who has a chance to fight for a roster spot, the time missed could be devastating. 

Last offseason, two undrafted tackles had a chance to make the team — Destiny Vaeao and Aziz Shittu — but only one did. During this time last year, Vaeao was on the field showing his potential, while Shittu was back in Stanford. Vaeao made the team and was a contributor, while Shittu was stuck on the practice squad.