A year after coming just three receiving yards short of 1,000, Jordan Matthews didn’t want to talk about himself.
Matthews wasn’t willing to discuss the possibility of 100 receptions, 1,000 receiving yards or other lofty personal goals when asked about his individual ambitions for this season following Friday’s training camp session at the NovaCare Complex (see Day 5 observations).
“I don’t even talk about that,” Matthews said. “This is a city where we ain’t about talking, we’re about working.”
As soon as Darren Sproles’ name was mentioned, however, Matthews started gushing about the versatile 33-year-old veteran, whom the Eagles signed to a one-year, $4.5 million extension on Friday (see story).
“I love D, that’s my boy,” Matthews said.
“He comes out here and practices hard every single day. He’s a great role model, not just for the running backs but for me, when I see him go out there and make plays I’m like, ‘Shoot, I need to do that.’ I know Zach [Ertz] looks up to him, too. It’s crazy, we look up to a guy that comes up to our knee, but all of us were excited that he was able to sign back with us. He’s a tremendous asset to this team, great teammate, great brother, so I’m excited to have him back.”
Matthews repeatedly stressed the importance of veterans such as Sproles who set a great example for their teammates. For this Eagles team in particular, Matthews believes that Sproles’ elusive running style and versatility will be a tremendous model for several of the team’s young running backs to follow.
“If you look at all of our backs, Kenjon [Barner], Byron [Marshall], [Wendell] Smallwood — they’re versatile guys, and they can all learn from Sproles," Matthews said. "They got some shiftiness to them, especially Byron, I like what I’ve seen from him, so I think all those guys can learn a lot from Sproles.”
The Eagles would also love if one of those backs shows some ability as a returner and eventually assumes Sproles’ duties in that department. Sproles led the NFL in both punt return yards (446) and punt return touchdowns (two) last season. At the moment, the team is trying out a handful of players during return drills, including Oregon products Barner and Marshall, though we’ll have to wait until the pads appear on Saturday to start seriously evaluating talent in that role.
Another unique attribute of Sproles is his skill as a receiver. Since 2007, he ranks No. 1 in the league in receiving yards (4,146) and receiving touchdowns (28) out of the backfield. In the team’s new West Coast-hybrid system, there should be more opportunities for running backs, especially Sproles, to thrive catching the ball. Running backs coach Duce Staley, a dual threat out of the backfield the last time the Eagles ran a West Coast scheme, took several of the young backs aside during drills Friday to tweak their route-running techniques.
In the competition for the final one or two running back spots on the roster next to Sproles and Ryan Mathews, who missed practice for a second straight morning and is day to day with a mild ankle injury, small distinctions between players as receivers and returners could determine who makes the team.
“We got a lot of talent there,” Pederson said. “Kenjon Barner is a kid who has shown some good strides this offseason, picking up the offense. You got Ryan there, you got Darren, and you got the young kids — Wendell we picked up, Byron Marshall, we got some guys with some talent.”
Returning his focus to his own position, Matthews continued to highlight the impact of veterans passing on their knowledge to younger players. According to Matthews, the offseason signings of Chris Givens and Rueben Randle, each of whom has four years of NFL experience, should help Nelson Agholor’s progression after a disappointing rookie season in which the USC product posted just 23 receptions.
“[Agholor] didn’t have a Jeremy [Maclin] when he came in, a guy that was older, who had played five years, like I did," Matthews said. "But now you got Rueb, he’s got some experience, Chris has been around so he knows a couple things … he’s learned from guys like Steve Smith and other guys he’s played with, so we’re going to continue to help bring him along, but Nelson’s done a great job, he had a great practice today, so I’m definitely really optimistic about his maturation.”
For all his emphasis on first- and second-year talent learning from experienced players like Randle, Sproles or even the 24-year-old Matthews himself, don’t confuse Matthews’ reverence for Sproles and the veterans on the Eagles' roster with the sentiment that this year will be more about “maturation” than competitive success.
“I don’t look at this as a rebuilding thing or like a lot of chemistry has to get rebuilt,” Matthews said. “We’ve secured a lot of guys and it really does feel like family. … Guys genuinely love to be around each other.”
Matthews probably won’t get to spend more than two more years with his role model Sproles (see story), but the consistent work ethic and knowledge the 11-year veteran has passed on should definitely serve Matthews and his next generation of teammates well.