Chip Kelly is OK with a certain degree of predictability.
The Eagles’ head coach has acquired a handful of new offensive players in his first two offseasons, and in each case, common principles exist. He wants guys who are capable of contributing in multiple ways; players who can be productive lining up in a variety of spots; and playmakers who are good with the ball in their hands.
Which brings us to yesterday’s acquisition of Darren Sproles. The Eagles dealt a fifth-round pick to the Saints in exchange for the nine-year veteran.
Having seen Kelly’s offense in action for a year and having looked at how Sproles performed in 2013, we can get a sense of what his role might be with the Eagles.
Sproles turns 31 in June, but the one area of his game that didn’t take much of a dip last season was his production as a receiver. Sproles caught 71 balls for 604 yards and averaged 8.5 yards per reception. He had seven catches of 20+ yards, tied for fourth-most among running backs. Sproles is a savvy route-runner who knows how to get open and can still make linebackers and safeties look foolish. Sean Payton recently called him one of the smartest football players he’s ever been around.
Take this play against the Falcons, for example. Sproles lines up stacked behind Marques Colston. What does that accomplish? It ensures a free release. Because he’s 5-6, 190, one method for slowing Sproles down is to bump him at the line of scrimmage and disrupt the timing of his routes. But because he’s stacked behind the 6-4 Colston, Sproles can get into his route without a defender touching him.
On this play, he runs a wheel route down the right sideline. Observers from last year will remember that Kelly loved using wheel routes with his running backs against linebackers and safeties. It’s a simple way to take advantage of man coverage. The Eagles got better at hitting on these later in the season.
Here, the Falcons use safety William Moore against Sproles. But Sproles leaves him in the dust.
Really, this should be a touchdown. But Drew Brees doesn’t deliver a great ball. Sproles has to slow down, turn to the sideline and adjust.
You might remember a similar play in the playoff game against the Eagles. Sproles beat Connor Barwin down the sideline, but Brees underthrew him, and the pass was incomplete.
Most running backs in the NFL nowadays are capable of making plays in the passing game, but Sproles has unique receiver skills as demonstrated by the above play. The result ended up being a 22-yard gain.
One reason the wheel route works so well with Sproles is because he’s so good on the underneath stuff. Many of his catches with the Saints last year came on balls in the flat. The concept is simple: Complete a high-percentage pass, ask Sproles to make a guy miss and then turn it upfield.
Before the Eagles played the Saints in January, I asked Kelly if he had ever spent time with Sean Payton. He said he had not, but there are obvious similarities in some of their offensive philosophies – specifically a focus on stretching the field vertically and horizontally.
Here’s a play from last year against the Cardinals. Sproles is lined up in the slot opposite safety Yeremiah Bell.
This looks like it’ll be a simple 3- or 4-yard gain.
Bell has Sproles lined up, but the vet still has some shiftiness left. And there is an element of toughness to his game despite the small frame. He shakes off the Bell tackle and drags a second defender upfield. Sproles ends up turning a 3-yard gain into an 11-yard pickup.
Sproles caught 84.2 percent of the balls thrown his way last year, per Pro Football Focus. Among players with at least 70 catches, the only others with a rate that high were Pierre Thomas, Danny Woodhead and Matt Forte.
And finally, Sproles can still be effective in the screen game – an area in which the Eagles had a lot of success last season.
Against the Dolphins, the Saints faced a 3rd-and-20. Miami predictably played their safeties deep and dropped back into zone coverage.
The Saints had four receivers run vertical routes. Brees, meanwhile, waited for the perfect time to dump it off to Sproles, who had three offensive linemen out in front blocking.
The blocking was fantastic, and Sproles weaved his way towards the sideline for 21 yards and a first down.
As shown above, Sproles can still be effective as a receiver. He might have a more difficult time shaking some of the game’s better defenders (Luke Kuechly and Lavonte David come to mind from the games I watched). But against most linebackers, he can still win. And he beat plenty of safeties too. That’s how Kelly will use him, as another piece he can move around on offense.
Still, this deal is not a home run. The draft is said to be loaded, and the Eagles gave up a fifth-round pick for a declining player who is in his 30s. Sproles is due $3.4 million in 2014 and then is scheduled to become a free agent.
You’ll notice I didn’t write much about Sproles as a running back. He only ran the ball 3.5 times per game in 2013 and averaged a pedestrian 4.2 YPC. I doubt he’ll see a bump in number of carries with the Eagles. Giving LeSean McCoy a breather always seems like a good idea Monday to Saturday. But then Sunday rolls around, and the Eagles’ coaches realize how difficult it is to take their best player off the field.
Bryce Brown and Chris Polk combined for 4.9 rushes per game last season. As Tim mentioned yesterday, maybe Brown gets dealt and Sproles gets some of those carries. But again, I don’t think the total number of rushing attempts for Sproles next season will exceed 50. The Saints went to him on a lot of tosses in the games I watched from last year, and Sproles can still make people miss, but the ability to shift gears and hit on big runs is what’s starting to go.
Sproles had one run of 20+ yards on 53 attempts last season. In his prime (2011, for example), Sproles averaged one run of 20+ yards every 12.4 attempts.
And as we noted yesterday, he did not perform well as a returner last year.
The bottom line? Sproles’ biggest impact will come in the passing game, and it will be fun to see how Kelly uses him there. You might see Sproles and McCoy lined up in the backfield together. You might see Sproles motion to the slot or out wide to get a mismatch against a linebacker or safety. Or you might see them stack him behind 6-5 Zach Ertz before running a wheel route down the sideline.
There are a lot of options in play, given Sproles’ skill set, and that’s likely the reason Kelly wanted him on board.