While Eagles offensive coaches were thrilled to land Darren Sproles this offseason, it didn’t take long for GM Howie Roseman to hear from representatives on the other side of the ball.
“I know when we played the Saints every year, I was worried about where he would be,” Roseman said. “When we made that trade, the first person to come to my office was Billy Davis, and he said, ‘I know every time we play Darren Sproles, I have to figure out where he is on the field.’ ”
Sproles has immediately become a favorite of Chip Kelly and the entire coaching staff. The 31-year-old practices like an undrafted free agent who has something to prove, not like an accomplished veteran. That's something Kelly clearly appreciates.
During the spring, Sproles lined up mostly at running back with the second team, although he did get moved to the slot during the final session open to the media.
"A lot like Chip, the Saints make you defend the width and the depth of the field," Davis said last week. "The width is a big part of their offense. So when you put Sproles in that role of coming out of the backfield on linebackers, you’ve gotta get help in there somewhere. You’ve gotta have some numbers in there low especially when you’re dealing with [Jimmy] Graham and him. So just the fact that he comes into the game and is such a receiving threat and open field threat. You put him in the box between the tackles, he’ll do OK. You put him in space against some of our defensive backs, he stops and starts extremely fast. So we’re excited to be playing with him and not against him."
In last year's playoff game, Sproles got eight touches on offense (four carries, four receptions) and picked up 60 yards. He also had a huge 39-yard kickoff return.
Sproles has averaged fewer than four rushing attempts per game in three of the last four seasons, yet Eagles coaches have emphasized this spring that they're counting on him to be a ball-carrier, not just a pass-catcher.
"One, you can’t see him," said inside linebackers coach Rick Minter when asked about the challenge of preparing for Sproles. "Seriously. I mean you can’t see the guy. He’s diminutive in size. Darren is short, but not small. There’s a big difference. He’s a short, statured man, but he’s thick and strong and violent and all those other things. As we’re noticing, they’re running Chip’s plays now. And I think this offense is gonna be a really good fit for Darren to get a second life and get some things going here just as a runner, let alone as a friggin’ receiver. That’s what he’s known for to be the hard matchup.
"But even as a runner, you start running those plays Chip’s running and you start looking back there behind that 300-pound offensive line, you don’t even see the guy. And all of a sudden, it’s boom, squirt out the back door and he’s got the ball. So I think his running skills are still there to run this style, and then the receiving skills are unbelievable, they’re off the charts. At the running back position, his ability to be a receiver out of the backfield or line up wherever they want to line him up is very challenging for us as a linebacker corps trying to stop him."
Despite Sproles' age and the fact that he averaged just 4.2 YPC last season, the Eagles jumped at the opportunity to acquire him. While the games are still more than two months away, they like what they've seen so far.
"First thing that sticks out is just how well he trains," Kelly said. "He's one of the guys that you point out to the younger guys on film as that is what it's supposed to look like. That's the effort, and that's what we're looking for on a daily basis from him. Very, very intelligent football player. He's got a great knowledge of the game, and I think he's really shared that with Duce [Staley] and myself kind of how he sees things and has helped out some of the younger running backs at that position."