The Philadelphia Eagles added another versatile piece to their offense when ESPN.com reported that they traded a fifth-round pick to the New Orleans Saints for running back Darren Sproles on Thursday.
Sproles is 30 years old—he'll be 31 before the season starts—and entering his 10th NFL campaign, which is unheard-of longevity for his position. Sproles is one of just three running backs drafted in 2005 or before to still be in the league, with Steven Jackson and Frank Gore as the others.
Sproles has managed to survive so long at just 5'6", 180 pounds because of the unique way in which he's been used. He has been featured primarily as a receiving back. As a pass-catcher on third downs, Sproles has been one of the finest in the business for both the San Diego Chargers and New Orleans Saints.
Sproles saw a dip in his numbers last year, rushing the ball just 53 times for 220 yards and two touchdowns.
That's his lowest rushing yardage total since his rookie season and his average of 4.2 yards per carry was his worst since '09. He hasn't carried the ball more than 10 times in a game since 2011 and has posted just three lifetime 100-yard games.
Sproles caught 71 passes out of the backfield in '13, making him just the third halfback in NFL history—Marshall Faulk and Roger Craig are the others—to post three consecutive 70-catch seasons.
That amounted to the fourth-most catches of any running back last year, and Sproles did all that without dropping a pass. According to Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Drew Brees completed 84.5 percent of his passes targeted to Sproles.
As noted by Reuben Frank of CSNPhilly.com, Sproles suffered a serious decline in his numbers as a return man. At this point, he's not even an upgrade over Damaris Johnson or Brandon Boykin.
Boykin actually averaged more yards per kick return (22.3) than Sproles. Johnson did the same thing on punt returns (8.3). Sproles hasn't taken a kick or punt for a touchdown since 2011. Johnson has actually done so more recently, as he ran a punt back for a 98-yard score in his '12 rookie campaign.
Still, there are reasons to believe Sproles can be successful in '14 under Chip Kelly. Sproles will likely become one of Kelly's favorite players. Frank indicates that he offers the all-important versatility factor that Kelly loves.
Sproles can line up as a traditional running back, a slot receiver or even a traditional wide receiver—although his height does limit him.
He's never received even 100 carries in a single season, so he's not at all a replacement for LeSean McCoy should McCoy get injured.
To say that Sproles is a winner everywhere he goes is unfair. He's just a rotational running back who has been blessed to play with two of the best quarterbacks over the last decade (Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, then Brees again).
In Sproles' nine NFL seasons, his starting QBs have combined for six Pro Bowl appearances while tossing 287 touchdown passes to just 117 interceptions.
Sproles has never played on a team with a losing record, save for the 2012 Saints that set the all-time record for total yards allowed.
The ideal scenario is probably that Sproles plays 15-20 snaps per game. He should be good for 3-4 carries and at least as many receptions. Sproles' limited skill set does make it fairly obvious what the play will be when he's on the field.
Last year, he saw just 368 snaps, but was targeted on 84 passes. That's nearly one-quarter of his plays. On those plays, Sproles performed well enough that PFF rated him as the seventh-best overall RB in '13 and the best on passing plays.
He will make life a whole lot easier for young quarterback Nick Foles, as Foles has a handful of short-term options in the passing game in McCoy, Sproles, Zach Ertz and Brent Celek.
Combine that with regular receivers DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper, and this projects to be a pretty lethal core of weapons.
It may be surprising that Kelly had to trade a fifth-round pick for a running back on the wrong side of 30. Kelly obviously sees enough in Sproles to think the trade was worth it.
Whether or not Sproles returns punts or kicks remains to be seen. Kelly may have Sproles handle the kick return duties, with Jackson taking back the punts. After all, Jackson is making over $10 million and it would be wise to get all the value possible out of him.
With Sproles joining the team, this very well could signal the end of the Bryce Brown era in Philadelphia. Brown showed tons of promise in 2012 as a rookie seventh-round pick, although he stalled in his second year. Brown doesn't project to be an ideal long-term fit in Kelly's offense and the Eagles may ask around to see what the trade market is for him.
Keeping Chris Polk as a third running back fits, as Polk played surprisingly well in '13, even edging out Brown for carries by December.
Sproles is also set to make a $3.40 million base salary in '14, which is a lot of money for a situational backup running back behind the NFL's leading rusher. Sproles hits free agency after next season, so he's essentially a one-year rental.
If Sproles can contribute as a change-of-pace runner behind McCoy and a receiving threat out of the backfield, it's a solid investment.
For the deal to really be worth it, Kelly will need Sproles to regain his form as a top return man, although that's unlikely given Sproles' age.
Salary information courtesy of Spotrac.com.
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