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.

No. 10 Washington dominates No. 7 Stanford in rout

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No. 10 Washington dominates No. 7 Stanford in rout

SEATTLE -- Jake Browning threw for 210 yards and three touchdowns, Myles Gaskin added 100 yards and two scores, and No. 10 Washington was dominant on both sides, overwhelming No. 7 Stanford 44-6 on Friday night.

After months of hype that Washington (5-0, 2-0 Pac-12) was on the verge of a breakout, the Huskies showed they were ready for their return to the national stage.

And they did it emphatically, handing Stanford (3-1, 2-1) its worst loss since a 41-3 setback against Arizona State in 2007.

The Huskies raced to a 23-0 halftime lead, scored early in the second half to go up 30-0 and coasted to their biggest victory over an AP Top 10 team since beating No. 5 Southern California 31-0 in 1990. That game 26 years ago announced Washington as a national contender and the Huskies went on to share the national title a year later with Miami -- taking the coaches' version while Miami topped the AP media poll.

Browning was the leader of an efficient offense that scored on six of its eight drives. He threw touchdowns of 3 yards to Dante Pettis, 19 yards to John Ross and capped the night with a 3-yarder to Aaron Fuller with 5:30 remaining. Browning was 15 of 21 and did not commit a turnover.

Equally important was Washington's ability to establish a running game. The Huskies rushed for 214 yards and averaged 5.2 yards per carry.

Meanwhile, Stanford star Christian McCaffrey saw his Heisman Trophy aspirations hit a major speed bump. McCaffrey was held to 49 yards rushing on 12 carries, five catches for 30 yards and continued his streak of never scoring an offensive touchdown in a road game.

It was McCaffrey's fewest yards rushing since 2014 at California when he had 19 yards on three carries.

Stanford's only TD came late in the third quarter on a 19-yard pass from Ryan Burns to J.J. Arcega-Whiteside.

Burns was 15 of 22 for 151 yards, but Washington controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides. Stanford quarterbacks were sacked eight times, six in the first half. Stanford had allowed only four total sacks in the first three games combined.

Stanford was playing short-handed without starting cornerbacks Quenton Meeks and Alijah Holder, starting wide receiver Francis Owusu and starting fullback Daniel Marx. Starting right tackle Casey Tucker limped off with an apparent leg injury late in the fourth quarter.

Takeaways
Stanford: The Cardinal were unexpectedly sloppy. Stanford committed 11 penalties after entering the week as the least penalized team in the Pac-12. There were communication issues in part due to the roaring Washington crowd, but also a lack of sharpness not normally seen from David Shaw's team.

Washington: The defense was up to the task of keeping McCaffrey under control and forcing Burns to beat them through the air. McCaffrey had 34 yards on 10 carries in the first half and forced the Cardinal into numerous long third-down situations. That allowed Washington to bring extra pass rushers to get to Burns.

Up Next
Stanford: The Cardinal head home after two straight weeks on the road to host Washington State.

Washington: The Huskies travel to Oregon looking to snap a 12-game losing streak to the Ducks.

Best of MLB: Darvish stars as Rangers beat Rays 3-1 and clinch home field

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Best of MLB: Darvish stars as Rangers beat Rays 3-1 and clinch home field

ARLINGLTON, Texas -- Yu Darvish looked playoff-ready with a season-high 12 strikeouts in six innings as the Texas Rangers beat the Tampa Bay Rays 3-1 on Friday night and clinched home-field advantage throughout the postseason.

The Rangers can be tied by only the Cleveland Indians and they own the tie-breaker by winning the teams' season series. The AL owns home-field advantage in the World Series thanks to its win in the All-Star Game.

Darvish (7-5) allowed one run, three hits and one walk. His 28th career game of double-digit strikeouts is the second-most in a pitcher's first 100 major league starts, topped only by Dwight Gooden (31). Darvish will likely start Game 2 of the Division Series following Cole Hamels.

Shin-Soo Choo returned to Texas' lineup after missing 39 games with a fractured left forearm. Choo pulled a single to right in his first plate appearance since Aug. 15 and went 1 for 4.

Matt Andriese (8-8) gave up three runs and seven hits, including solo home runs to Carlos Beltran and Rougned Odor (see full story). 

Cabrera hits 2 HRs, Tigers move up in playoff race, beat Braves
ATLANTA -- Miguel Cabrera hit two home runs, Ian Kinsler and Justin Upton also connected and the Detroit Tigers moved up in the playoff race, beating the Atlanta Braves 6-2 Friday night.

The Tigers won their third straight and pulled within a half-game of Toronto for the second AL wild-card spot. The Blue Jays lost at Boston 5-3.

The regular season is scheduled to end Sunday, but the Tigers might need to play beyond that. They were rained out against Cleveland this week and would have to make up that game if it impacts their playoff chances.

Daniel Norris (4-2) gave up one run, five hits, two walks and struck out eight in 6 2/3 innings.

The Braves, playing their final series at Turner Field before moving north to the suburbs next year, had won 10 of 11. Matt Wisler (7-13) was chased in the fifth when James McCann's RBI single made it 5-0 (see full story).

Trumbo hits 47th, Schoop 5 RBIs as Orioles top Yankees 8-1
NEW YORK -- Mark Trumbo hit his major league-leading 47th home run, Jonathan Schoop and Adam Jones also went deep in a six-run fifth inning and the Baltimore Orioles beat the New York Yankees 8-1 in steady rain Friday night to maintain their AL wild-card lead.

Baltimore began the night tied with Toronto for the AL's two wild cards at 87-72, with Detroit 1 1/2 games back and Seattle trailing the Tigers by a half-game.

Trumbo and Jones homered off Michael Pineda (6-12), who started with 3 2/3 hitless innings and suddenly became ineffective.

Schoop tied his career high with five RBIs, hitting a go-ahead, two-run double in the fourth and adding a three-run homer in the fifth against James Pazos -- Baltimore's big league-high 250th home run this season.

Yovani Gallardo (6-8) won for just the second time in nine starts since Aug. 5, allowing two hits, three walks and Mark Teixeira's sacrifice fly in six innings (see full story). 

Ortiz delivers another HR, Red Sox beat Blue Jays 5-3
BOSTON -- Opening his final weekend with yet another game-winning homer, David Ortiz lined a two-run shot into the right-field stands to break a seventh-inning tie and help the Boston Red Sox beat the Toronto Blue Jays 5-3 on Friday night.

The AL East champion Red Sox snapped a three-game losing streak and stayed one game ahead of Cleveland in the race for home-field advantage for the playoffs.

The Blue Jays fell one game behind Baltimore in the wild-card race and are now within range of Detroit and Seattle in the fight for the AL's final postseason berth (see full story).