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.

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

BOX SCORE

The Sixers began the season looking lost without Joel Embiid. Now they are finding ways to win when he is not on the court. 

Embiid suffered a left knee contusion in the second half of Friday’s 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see story). He was sidelined for the decisive 8:50 of the game (see Instant Replay).

The Sixers trailed, 81-78, when he subbed out for the second time because of the injury, and outscored the Trail Blazers, 15-11, from that point on.

So how was this team that battled with inconsistency and reliance on Embiid able to pull out a comeback win punctuated in the final seconds? Ask the Sixers and they’ll give varying answers, a sign they are getting the job done in multiple ways and aren’t relying on just one key to success.

The most glaring difference was the hero of the game. Robert Covington drained two three-pointers in the final 40 seconds. His trey from Dario Saric with 38.2 remaining cut the Trail Blazers' lead to just one, 91-90. With 4.5 to go, he nailed the game-winning three from T.J. McConnell to give the Sixers their eighth victory in 10 games (see feature highlight).

“That’s resilient Cov,” Nerlens Noel said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a good shot or a bad shot; he’ll pull it in your face. That’s the confidence he has and that’s the confidence we need him to have. He steps up and makes two big shots like that, that’s enough said. He won us that game.”

Critics have called out Covington’s up-and-down performance from three all season. (They’ve made their feelings known with loud boos at home games.) Covington shot 5 for 12 behind the arc on the night but his 2 for 3 performance in the fourth was what mattered most. 

“I am a fighter, that’s what I have been my whole life,” he said. “Just because fans are booing me at one point doesn't mean anything. I just keep working. I am not going to let that deteriorate my game. It goes in one ear and out the other.”

Without Embiid in the game, the Sixers had to rely on a total team effort. After he went to the bench, the final points were scored by a combination of Covington, Gerald Henderson, Noel, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and McConnell.

“Ball movement,” head coach Brett Brown said. “We had 25 assists out of 36 made baskets. It’s not like we’re going to give the ball to Damian Lillard (guard for the Blazers). That’s not who we are. Whatever we do, it has to be done by committee, by a group, by a team. It’s even more exposed when Joel isn’t in the game. They did that. Unlikely people ended up with the ball sometimes in unlikely spots. … You have to move the ball. That’s what the team has learned without Joel.” 

Several of the players on the court in critical moments were from the second unit. Since Brown locked in on his rotation, the reserves don’t have a drop-off in confidence from the starters. 

“It’s the mentality,” Covington said. “Everybody has that swagger about us right now because once Joel comes out, the next person steps in and fills that void. It’s a matter of that contagious feeling that trickles into the second unit that’s making us that much more valuable.”

Then there's always defense, the foundation of any solid NBA team and a focal point for the Sixers. Noel saw that as the difference-maker when subbing in and out. The Trail Blazers scored just two points in the final 1:56. 

"The second unit goes there and does a great job guarding the yard, not letting up easy baskets," Noel said. "The offensive side is fluid motion. Guys get shots, pick-and-roll, it opens up open threes for guys, driving lines, pump fakes, it’s a great unity."

Embiid liked what he saw from a distance. He will not travel with the team to their game on Saturday against the Hawks in Atlanta. 

"I’m just happy we’ve been closing out games, and the main thing I’m really happy [about] is they’ve been able to do it without me," he said. "That’s going to give us a lot of confidence when I’m missing back-to-backs. My teammates are going to have more confidence to come in and play the same way."

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Of the nearly 20,000 people in the Wells Fargo Center on Friday night, Joel Embiid was seemingly the least concerned when he came down and injured his left knee. 

Fans held their breath and the Sixers looked on anxiously as the standout big man got up in visible discomfort and limped off the court (see highlights). Embiid, however, wasn’t worried. 

“I knew it was OK. I just landed the wrong way,” he said after the Sixers' 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see Instant Replay). “I’m great. The knee’s fine. They did an MRI and stuff, everything looked good.”

Embiid ran off the court on his own, was diagnosed with a left knee contusion and was cleared to return to the game. He aggravated his knee again driving to the basket and this time, the team held him out to be careful.

“The review is that he hyperextended his left knee,” head coach Brett Brown said. “There was a minor tweak again, and for precautionary reasons only, the doctors did not allow him to return. There will be more information given as we know it. But quickly, that's what we know.”

Embiid understood the team’s decision to sideline him for the final 8:50 while the Sixers went on a comeback run (see feature highlight). He still finished the game with an 18-point, 10-rebound double-double, five assists and four blocks in only 22 minutes.

“Obviously those guys, the front office, they care about my future, so they just shut it down,” Embiid said. “But I was fine.”

Embiid will not travel to Atlanta for Saturday’s game against the Hawks (pre-scheduled rest). He expects to be available for Tuesday’s home matchup against the Clippers. 

"You know how tough he is," Nerlens Noel said. "If it isn’t anything serious, he’ll be right back. At the end of the game, he was telling me was he was feeling great and there was no pain. He wanted to come back in the game … he’s a trooper. He always gives it his all and always plays hard."

Injuries to any player are worrisome, especially a franchise centerpiece with two years of rehab (foot) behind him. The Sixers have been methodical and cautious with his playing time. Embiid is on a 28-minute restriction and can play in only one game of a back-to-back series. 

The same player who is so closely watched, though, also plays with sky-high energy that doesn’t have a brake pedal. 

“You're concerned,” Brown said of seeing Embiid get injured. “It's clear to all of us that he plays with such reckless abandon. I think that we're all going to be seeing this and feeling this regularly. From flying into stands to stalking somebody in the open court to block a shot to the collision he often is in trying to draw fouls. That's just who he is. 

“I think that as he just plays more basketball and continues to grow, to not necessarily avoid those situations, just to perhaps manage them a little bit more. Right now, he's just a young guy that's just playing that doesn't know what he doesn't know and has a fearless approach underneath all that attitude.”

Fearless is an accurate description considering Embiid's trouble-free reaction to the awkward way his leg bent (he hadn’t seen a replay). 

“I kind of had that in college, too,” he said. “I think I’m flexible, so it’s supposed to happen.”