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.

Phillie Phodder: The Ryan Howard drama, trade chips and bat flips

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Phillie Phodder: The Ryan Howard drama, trade chips and bat flips

CHICAGO — The Phillies are here for what figures to be the toughest test thus far in their surprising break from the starting gate — three games against the Chicago Cubs, a team built to win the World Series and so far looking as if it can do just that. The Cubs were the first team to reach 30 wins this season, are 14-6 at home, and averaging a National League-best 5.69 runs per game, over two more than the 3.3 runs the Phillies are putting on the board per contest.

The series will be interesting even beyond the test the Phillies will receive because we could see another progression in the raging Ryan Howard drama.

In Tommy Joseph, the Phillies have a player worthy of taking away playing time from the struggling Howard. Joseph started at first base the last three games in Detroit, hit in the middle of the lineup and did so with authority. Phillies management is on record as saying it needs an injection of offense to support the good pitching the team has gotten. If it is committed to that idea, then Joseph needs to keep playing. He will start Friday afternoon against lefty Jon Lester. He should start again on Saturday and Sunday when the Phillies face right-handed pitchers.

Will he?

The guess here is that Joseph starts one of the weekend games with Howard getting the other. That right there would be a continuation of the phasing out of Howard from the lineup. If Joseph delivers against right-handed pitching, the Phillies owe it to their fans and the players who have put together this quick and entertaining start to keep playing him.

But this whole drama remains a sticky situation on a lot of levels. Howard is not walking away from the more than $25 million that remains on his contract and he shouldn’t. But there’s no way he’s going to be happy sitting on the bench and it’s difficult to envision him contributing as a reserve player/bat off the bench. He has a tough enough time making contact while getting regular at-bats. How’s he going to hold up as a reserve?

Poorly.

If Joseph continues to emerge, the Phillies will have to consider releasing Howard. Either that or they ride out the final four months of his contract with him sitting on the bench. Neither solution is comfortable. As one of the franchise’s greatest players and a champion, Howard is going to end up on the team’s Wall of Fame someday and it would be nice if he showed up at the induction. Would a release sour his relationship with the organization forever? It’s a factor that the Phillies can consider because they are still in a rebuild and, as well as they’ve played so far, it’s tough to see them staying in contention for the long haul. If this team was projected to win, then it’s a different story. If there was ever a year to suck it up and let Howard leave with dignity, it’s this one. But if carrying Howard as a reserve leads to a cumbersome situation in a young clubhouse, maybe parting is the best solution.

Regardless of the endgame, Joseph needs to keep getting regular at-bats because the baseball still matters.

                                                                      ***

While Odubel Herrera’s three-run home run and subsequent bat flip dominated Wednesday’s win over Detroit, several other players made contributions. Andres Blanco, with his typical booster shot of energy, plus two hits, an RBI, two runs scored and the team’s first steal of home since 2009, was one of them. Jeanmar Gomez, who only out of Pete Mackanin’s desperation got a shot at closer in early April, was another with his 17th save.

If the Phillies’ lack of offense catches up with them and they fall out of the race, Blanco and Gomez could be trade chips for the team. Blanco’s ability to come off the bench and contribute on both sides of the ball could be attractive to a team that is ready to win in October. He won’t bring back a game-breaking talent, but it would be worth taking a chance on a young minor-league arm, a lottery ticket, that could ultimately develop into something.

Gomez’s big season has the feel of lightning in a bottle. He’s done a terrific job getting saves without typical closer’s stuff. He relies on touch, feel, location and pitching savvy. He makes hitters get themselves out. How long can it last? Who knows? But Gomez deserves kudos and very well could ride his unexpected success to a spot in the All-Star Game. Shortly after that, if the Phillies are out of the race, the front office should look to cash in on his unforeseen value, which will never be higher, and deal him to one of the many teams that will be looking for bullpen help. Gomez could help a contender in the seventh, eighth or ninth inning and if he keeps pitching well, might bring back a decent return.

Jeremy Hellickson and Carlos Ruiz could also be trade chips in July — if the Phils fall out of the race. We talked about that recently with Ruiz.

If the Phils stay in the race, the front office would probably have to hang on to at least several of these players. Trading players, even role players, could send a bad message to fans if the team still has a chance at the postseason. The exception would be Hellickson. It could make sense to deal him either way and use his departure as an opportunity to bring up the next young arm from the minors. Hellickson has pitched well lately and it would benefit the team in more ways that one if he continued to do so.

Switching over to the glass-half-full side … there is a chance the Phillies will pursue a bat to boost their anemic offense, but the decision to even make that move is still a ways away. Matt Klentak made it pretty clear that he needs to see more from this club over the next month or so before he goes after a bat in a trade. And Klentak is not about to compromise the rebuild to add a bat for short-term contribution. In other words, he’s not about to trade away prospects for outfield bats that might get in the way of Nick Williams, Roman Quinn or Dylan Cozens rising to the majors in the next year. The Phillies do have money. If an opposing team wants to move an expiring contract — someone like a Jay Bruce — and it would cost the Phillies more on the money side than the prospect side, that could be a fit for the Phillies.

If they stay in the race.

                                                                      ***

Getting to Herrera’s bat flip … it was fun. And this scribe believes the kid when he says it was natural. But there’s risk involved in something like that. Herrera is a kid that loves to play the game and loves to be on the field. But he needs to beware that if he flips his bat on the wrong guy, he’s going to end up with a broken batting helmet or a broken rib. You can talk about new-school ways and making the game fun again — as if it ever stopped being fun — but pitchers are competitors and they don’t like being shown up, be it intentional or not. They didn’t in the old school and they don’t in the new school. This scribe loves players who play with emotion, energy and exuberance, and there’s nothing wrong with celebrating your successes. Heck, Babe Ruth used to tip his hat rounding the bases. But there is a limit. Herrera is the Phillies’ best player and he has a responsibility to stay on the field. He might want to think twice before he goes with a “big air” bat flip on his next home run because if he does it on the wrong pitcher, he might get hurt.

Jim Schwartz's defense path was molded, in part, by Jevon Kearse

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Jim Schwartz's defense path was molded, in part, by Jevon Kearse

Jim Schwartz is famous for his use of the wide-9 alignment and the 4-3 defense in general. That's the scheme he's had success with in the NFL. That's what he brings to the Eagles.

Yet somewhere in an alternate universe, Schwartz is coaching a 3-4 defense right now, all because the Tennessee Titans never drafted Jevon Kearse.

OK, that might be a stretch considering Schwartz learned under coaches such as Marvin Jones and Gregg Williams, who are also known for the 4-3. Then again, the Eagles' defensive coordinator revealed when he was hired by the Titans as an assistant in 1999, the defense was actually using quite a bit of 3-4. Kearse changed everything, and is in part responsible for Schwartz's preference in scheme to this day.

"When I first went to Tennessee, we based out of a lot of 3-4, but it probably came from just the personnel we had," Schwartz recalled.

"We drafted Jevon Kearse. There was a line of thought that Jevon Kearse was gonna be a 3-4 outside linebacker or he was gonna be a defensive end. We decided to try to make it as simple as we could for him, put him at one spot and just let him attack and rush the passer and let him play the edge.

"We had some success with that, then found other guys in the scheme that fit."

Some success is putting it mildly.

Eagles fans might best remember Kearse for four injury-prone seasons between 2004-07 where he failed to live up to a massive free-agent contract, totaling just 22 sacks. As a first-round pick in 1999, however, "The Freak" burst on to the scene with 14.5 sacks, earning Defensive Rookie and Player of the Year honors en route to the first of three consecutive invitations to the Pro Bowl. Kearse had accumulated 47.5 sacks after five seasons in Tennessee.

Kearse's final trip to the Pro Bowl came under Schwartz, who ascended to defensive coordinator in 2001, a post he held until being name head coach of the Detroit Lions in '09. Afterward, he served one year as defensive coordinator for the Bills. In 14 NFL seasons, Schwartz has coached eight different linemen to double-digit sack seasons.

Some of that production is the result of a system that allows linemen like Kearse to play fast and attack.

"Philosophically, the thing that's guiding that has been try to make it as simple as we can," Schwartz said.

"It's a coach's job to make a complex scheme simple for the players. It's our job to make it so that they can digest it. There's a lot of things that are going on, on the field — offensive tempo, different personnel groups and formations — there's a million different things going on and they have to process all that stuff. Our job is to streamline the information and allow them to play fast, give them confidence."

Through his experiences, Schwartz has come to believe the 4-3 defense — when equipped with the right personnel up front — is the best method to attack offenses in today's NFL.

"I think that the other part of the 4-3 is when you can affect the passer with four guys, you're not forced to blitz to get pressure on the quarterback, you're in a very good position," he said. "I've been there before when you can't get pressure and you have to blitz — it's not a great feeling. You want to blitz on your terms. You want to be able to blitz when you want to, when the situation is right, not, 'We can't get any pass rush unless we do it.

"So allowing those guys to keep it simple, to be able to pressure with four and not make yourself skinnier so to speak in coverage can also take some big plays away from offenses."

It's difficult to argue with the results. Schwartz has three previous stints as either a defensive coordinator or head coach in the NFL, during which his units have four top-10 finishes in yards allowed as well as a pair of top-five rankings in points surrendered. Perhaps most impressive of all are the three occasions where Schwartz's defense finished third the league in takeaways.

Schwartz inherits plenty of talent on the Eagles defense, particularly along the defensive line. Connor Barwin has twice attained doubled-digit sacks in a season, while Fletcher Cox and Vinny Curry have both eclipsed nine. Brandon Graham and Marcus Smith are former first-round picks too.

Don't expect this defense to look identical to what Schwartz has done at previous stops, though. While he may be known for a particular approach or brand of football, Schwartz plans to tailor the Eagles' defense to the personnel he has, just like the Titans did with Kearse in Tennessee all those years ago.

"Every year will be a little bit different," Schwartz said. "Our terminology is a little bit different, cast of characters is a little different, and if we're on the right track, we'll put the players in the best position to best use their talents.

"What we did in Buffalo was a little different than what we did in Detroit, which was a little different from what we did in Tennessee, but it's all designed to try to make the most of what you have."

NBA draft profile: F Brandon Ingram

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NBA draft profile: F Brandon Ingram

Brandon Ingram

Position: Forward

Height: 6-9

Weight: 196

School: Duke

For months, Ben Simmons seemed to be a lock for the No. 1 pick. There was little competition for the LSU forward, who had been highly touted for years. Then came Brandon Ingram. The long, lanky forward emerged during his freshman (and only) season at Duke to make the top selection a legitimate two-player debate.

Ingram averaged 17.3 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.0 assists in 34.6 minutes per game. He scored 20 points or more in each of the fourth-ranked Blue Devils’ tournament games before they were eliminated in the Sweet 16.

Here’s the biggest intrigue with Ingram: He’s only 18 years old. After coming on this strong as a freshman, his potential is one of his largest draws.

The Sixers met with Ingram at the draft combine and have attended a private workout held by his agency.

Strengths
Ingram set himself apart with his ability to shoot. He made 41.0 percent from three (80 of 195), an impressive mark for a player his size. Ingram also shot 44.2 percent from the field. He doesn’t rely on his outside game, attacking the basket as well to create a versatile offensive package.

Ingram’s length allows him to get his hands on the ball all over the court. With a 7-foot-3 wingspan, Ingram can fight over opponents for rebounds and loose balls. On the defensive end, his size creates mismatches, including on the perimeter. As bigs expand their shots away from the basket, Ingram can chase his opponents out to the wing. 

His 2.0 assists per game don’t tell the whole story of his passing abilities. Ingram has a high basketball IQ and sees the floor to create for his teammates.

Weaknesses
Ingram has to develop an NBA body. Playing his position at less than 200 pounds, he will get bounced around by other bigs. By putting on muscle, he will be able to play tougher defense at the basket.

Ingram can improve his all-around defensive skillset. He has shown he can rebound, but his overall consistency and intensity stands to be amped up in the pros.

Ingram can also improve his free throws after shooting 68.2 percent from the line at Duke.

How he'd fit with the Sixers
The Sixers don’t have a consistent go-to scoring option. Ingram could fulfill that role as the top offensive weapon. Being only 18, he would be part of the Sixers’ young foundation they could develop over time. His athleticism would help facilitate an uptempo system that maximizes their youth to get up and down the court. Brett Brown emphasizes his desire for two-way players and Ingram could contribute on both ends.

NBA comparison
Ingram has been compared to Kevin Durant. Think long and lanky for the position with the offensive skills to be a scoring threat. Ingram also has been likened to Tayshaun Prince, who had a decent NBA career but wasn't an MVP candidate like Durant.

Draft projection
Ingram is in the mix for being the No. 1 pick. If the Sixers go with Simmons at the top spot, expect the Lakers to take Ingram at two.