Are Saints Gutting a Playoff-Ready Team by Releasing Darren Sproles?

Knox BardeenNFC South Lead WriterMarch 7, 2014

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In the span of less than 12 hours on Friday, two players said goodbye to the city of New Orleans via Twitter, and a chunk of the Saints’ offense began packing to leave town as wide receiver Lance Moore got the news early and running back Darren Sproles was informed later in the evening that their days with the team were over.

The rumors started flying Friday shortly after Moore was released. Sproles was originally thought to be a goner, and then Pro Football Talk announced the Saints were trying to trade him first.

Apparently the brass in New Orleans got enough quick no’s to realize Sproles was not going to be traded. When the team officially announces the transaction and sends it to the NFL office, the Saints will save $3.5 million against their cap.

But is the extra cap room worth giving up such a valuable offensive weapon? Cutting Sproles means the Saints are walking a fine line between cost-cutting and creatively gutting a playoff-ready roster.

New Orleans effectively gained just over $6 million of cap space by releasing Moore and Sproles. But by getting rid of the two, the Saints also lost 24.2 percent of their receptions last season and 20.6 percent of their total receiving yards. And that doesn’t take into account anything Sproles did in the running game or on special teams.

2013 Saints: Receiving Stats by Percentage
PlayerReceptionsTeam %Receiving YardsTeam %
Jimmy Graham8619.3%1,21523.5%
Marques Colston7516.8%94318.3%
Kenny Stills327.2%64112.4%
Darren Sproles7115.9%60411.7%
Pierre Thomas7717.3%5139.9%
Lance Moore378.3%4578.9%
Robert Meachem163.6%3246.3%
Ben Watson194.3%2264.4%
Jed Collins143.1%541.0%

With the rule change regarding kickoffs, Sproles’ return yardage has plummeted. He went from 1,089 kickoff return yards in 2011 to 483 in 2012 to 255 in 2013. If Sproles was still returning 40 kickoffs per season and churning out 1,000 return yards, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Sproles would be too valuable to cut.

But Sproles is still a valuable commodity, not only because he averages over four yards per carry, but because of what he can do with his hands out of the backfield.

Sproles caught 71 passes last season for 604 yards and had two touchdowns. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Sproles ranked first in the NFL among running backs in Yards per Route Run, PFF’s proprietary metric that is “a better indicator of production than Yards per Reception or even Yards per Target.”

Sproles ran 84 routes and tallied 604 receiving yards to equal 2.28 yards for every route he ran. Only four players in the NFL—Sproles, Shane Vereen from the New England Patriots, DeAngelo Williams from the Carolina Panthers and Danny Woodhead from the San Diego Chargers—eclipsed the two yards per route ran mark.

And despite only two touchdown receptions last season, he’s been a scoring machine in the NFL.

Sproles is also a huge security blanket for this New Orleans running back corps. With the general thought being Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson will take over as the workhorse-backs for the Saints in 2014, Sproles, and even Pierre Thomas, are expendable.

At least that’s the theory. But it may not be a sound one.

Robinson just finished his rookie season after landing in New Orleans as an undrafted free agent. He’s only carried the ball 75 times in his professional career if you count the playoffs, and 43 percent of those carries came in the Saints’ final three games.

Robinson is anything but seasoned. He has tremendous upside, but is he ready for this kind of a promotion?

And speaking of upside, Ingram knows that feeling, but most of his experience has been on the side of unrealized potential.

Ingram was drafted in the first round of the 2011 draft, and actually led the Saints in rushing in his second season. But injuries and sub-par play have kept him from taking steps toward becoming the Saints’ featured back. In all honesty, it’s much easier to find instances of the media and fans lamenting Ingram’s existence in New Orleans than it is to find praise.

And with Sproles gone now, the idea is Thomas may be the next to go.

Before the Saints get rid of Thomas too, it might be a good idea to evaluate whether or not the running  game can be sufficiently handled by a second-year rusher with limited experience and a former first-round pick with more bad experiences than good on the field.


Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.

Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.