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.

Instant Replay: Flyers 4, Predators 2

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Associated Press

Instant Replay: Flyers 4, Predators 2

BOX SCORE

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Wayne Simmonds scored two power-play goals and the Flyers won their fifth straight, extending their longest win streak of the season with a 4-2 win over the Nashville Predators on Sunday night at Bridgestone Arena.

Michael Raffl and Chris VandeVelde also scored for the Flyers (14-10-3), who have four straight wins over Nashville (11-9-4).

Calle Jarnkrok and Colin Wison scored for the Predators.

Simmonds’ first power-play goal gave the Flyers a 1-0 lead in the first period.

Nashville tied the game at 1-1 when Jarnkrok redirected Mattias Ekholm’s shot at 3:17 of the second period.

Simmonds struck again on the power play just over three minutes later when he batted a puck through Juuse Saros' legs for a 2-1 lead. Simmonds leads the Flyers with 13 goals on the year.

Wilson’s backhander tied it at 2-2 when he took a nice pass from Mike Fisher before beating Steve Mason blocker side at 11:19 of the second period.
    
Michael Raffl gave the Flyers a 3-2 lead on a 2-on-1 rush at of the second period. Raffl sped past a Nashville defender and used a power move at the front of the net before sliding the puck past Saros for game's deciding tally.

VandeVelde added an empty netter with 26.3 seconds left.
 
Moving up

Claude Gioux’s second-period assist moved him past Rod Brind-Amour into sixth in Flyers history with 367 helpers.

Giroux played in last year’s All-Star Game in Nashville.

Milestone
Flyers defenseman Brandon Manning played in his 100th career game.

Back and forth
The Flyers took three one-goal leads during the first two periods and the Predators tied the score twice before the visitors took a 3-2 lead into the final 20 minutes.

Double trouble
Simmonds tied his season high with two goals in a game. His first two-goal game came in a 6-3 loss at Toronto on Nov. 11.

The Flyers' winger has 10 goals in 20 career games against Nashville.

Back to backs
The Flyers improved to 5-1-1 on the back end of back-to-back games. The Flyers beat Chicago, 3-1, on Saturday afternoon in Philadelphia.

Goalie report
Mason improved to 9-8-3 after making 26 saves. He withstood a late push by Nashville.

Power play
The Flyers' power play went 2 for 7 with two goals by Simmonds.

The Flyers got a four-minute power play when Filip Forsberg was called for high sticking Nick Cousins at 3:12 of the third period, but couldn’t capitalize. That brought a roar from the sellout crowd of 17,113.

Penalty kill
The penalty kill went a perfect 3 for 3. The Flyers got some puck luck when Filip Forsberg’s wrist shot from the right faceoff circle bounced off the right post while Simmonds was in the box for tripping midway through the first period.
 
Scratches
Flyers defenseman Radko Gudas (sick), left wing Scott Laughton (healthy) and defenseman Nick Schultz (healthy) were scratched.

Up next
The Flyers host Florida on Tuesday to start a three-game homestand. Edmonton visits the Wells Fargo Center on Thursday and Dallas visits on Saturday afternoon.

Carson Wentz, Doug Pederson disagree on mechanical issues

Carson Wentz, Doug Pederson disagree on mechanical issues

CINCINNATI – Normally upbeat and positive, Eagles rookie quarterback Carson Wentz gave a terse answer, at least by his standards.

After the Eagles’ 32-14 loss to the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium (see Instant Replay), a game that was probably the worst of his young career, Wentz was asked about his proclivity for overthrowing his targets.

“Bad throw,” Wentz said blankly. “Just like last week.”

Those bad throws have been coming more and more frequently in recent weeks for the second-overall pick. After throwing one interception in his first five games, he’s thrown 10 in his last seven, including his first three-interception day on Sunday. A common thread has been overthrows.

When head coach and former QBs coach Doug Pederson was asked about those high throws from his prized quarterback, he said, “It’s strictly mechanics.” Pederson elaborated, saying they need to get Wentz off his back foot and stepping into throws. And then there were batted passes too.

“There were opportunities, obviously,” Pederson said. “Again, he's a young quarterback who missed a lot of time in the preseason, but now we just need to keep cleaning those things up.”

There might be a problem, though.

Wentz doesn’t seem to think there’s anything to clean up.

After Sunday’s embarrassing loss, the rookie said his mechanics feel the same now as they did when the Eagles started the season with three consecutive wins, before he had ever thrown a pick in the NFL.

“I don't think it's the mechanics,” Wentz said. “You make mistakes. Things happen, and that's just the bottom line.”

Is there anything that could be affecting his mechanics?

“I don't think so,” Wentz said. “You throw the ball 60 times, you're going to miss some. That kind of happens.”

Wentz seemed hesitant to take blame for his shaky play on Sunday (see breakdown of Wentz's performance), but he is right. Sixty passing attempts is an awful lot. In fact, it’s a record for an Eagles rookie and it’s the second most passing attempts a rookie quarterback has ever thrown in a game (Chris Weinke threw 63 in 2001).  

The reason for that, at least partially, on Sunday was the Eagles’ never got going offensively and their defense was porous at best, which led to the Bengals’ taking a 19-0 lead into halftime (see 10 observations from the loss). They had to try to throw their way back into the game.

“You never want your quarterback to throw 60 times, coming from behind,” Pederson said. “We put ourselves in a bind early in the football game. It’s going to be a learning lesson for him, obviously. We have to take a hard look at it. But by no means, the fact that he stood in there and still led the football team. He took some shots, but still stood in there and just shows you the kind of character and the toughness we have.”

For Wentz, who was once though to be the clear frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, the last couple months have been understandably difficult.

In the first four games of the season, he had a passer rating over 100 three times. He hasn't broken 100 since then and his 58.2 rating on Sunday was the second-worst of the season, behind his 52.4 in a winning effort against the Vikings.

“You just can't get down,” Wentz said. “You've got to stay optimistic. Obviously, the results are tough as of late. We're kind of on a skid. Like I've been saying, this is a good group of guys, a good locker room. Guys are in it until the end.”

It’s important to remember that, initially, Wentz wasn’t drafted to play this season. The original plan was to have him sit this season, but he was thrust into action after the Eagles traded away Sam Bradford.

Ultimately, Wentz will be judged for his play in years to come. For now, though, he and the Eagles have to try to find a way to fix this.

How do they do it?

“Obviously, we're on a skid,” Wentz said. “There's nothing really to change. We've just got to lock in and we've got to be more disciplined. At the same time, you don't get down. That's what I've been saying. This locker room, guys aren't going to get down. We've just got to be better with our discipline and just keep attacking. Obviously, we're in a tough spot, but we've just got to take it one game at a time.”