DeSean Jackson is no longer a member of the Philadelphia Eagles. That, for many Eagles fans, is tough to swallow. But as one dynamic weapon departs for the NFC East rival Washington Redskins, another has arrived in the City of Brotherly Love, ready to help fill Jackson's shoes.
And don't underestimate what head coach Chip Kelly can do with the 30-year-old Darren Sproles, who is five inches shorter but about 12 pounds heavier than Jackson. He's less of a deep threat, but significantly more versatile. In fact, it's hard to find anyone in this league who can be used more diversely than Sproles.
Watching tape from Sproles' last three seasons in New Orleans, one thing that really stood out was how easy Sproles seemed to make it on Drew Brees, mainly because he's a natural fit in so many spots and can get open immediately because of his speed. That's something B/R game film expert Matt Bowen touches on in this superb all-22 analysis of Sproles' game.
We'll focus this tape breakdown on Sproles' ability as a receiver. He'll likely get some carries, too, which is scary, but LeSean McCoy is one of the best pure backs in the league and will be the No. 1 guy on handoffs.
Since 2011, Sproles has more catches, yards and receiving touchdowns than any other back in football by wide margins. In fact, only 14 wide receivers have more grabs than he does during that stretch. And only 27 receivers have more touchdowns despite the fact he's only a part-time player.
We know Kelly loves players who can line up in multiple spots and produce from wherever they're situated. That is Sproles' forte. Let's break down the many ways in which Sproles can contribute in addition to merely taking handoffs out of I-formation.
Here he is in his go-to spot in his very first game as a Saint in 2011. He's left of Drew Brees in shotgun, running a fairly basic wheel route and easily taking care of the only linebacker in his path for a 36-yard catch-and-run:
The Eagles love routes like those, usually for McCoy. This gives them another experienced, speedy option. McCoy could use some breaks. Since 2011, he has had two seasons with 850 or more snaps at running back, according to PFF. During that span, only two other backs—Jamaal Charles and Matt Forte—have hit that plateau once.
You'll also see Sproles line up quite frequently behind the slot receiver in a stack formation, which gives him a free release. One example is here on a six-yard red-zone catch:
Now we see him as a regular-looking back, lined up in I-formation with an offset lead blocker. He takes a screen pass in the right flat for a 16-yard catch-and-run to convert a third down. Look at how quickly he gets to the edge:
Here he's lined up in the right slot sans stack. He blocks for a moment and then turns into a receiver on a mini screen, resulting in an easy six-yard gain. Drew Brees barely has to work:
He isn't in the slot here but it's a similar play because Sproles again does a great job selling himself as a blocker, not a receiver. He barely moves after the snap, waiting for his blockers to move into place before turning and catching a screen from Brees. That'd be good for 18 yards:
Again, he just sits and waits, hiding in the backfield. And then he's off to the races. This time, for 33 yards:
And don't think the Eagles won't use plenty of two-back looks with McCoy in a standard spot and Sproles lining up somewhere to give defenses fits. We see that here, with the Saints using Sproles back off the line of scrimmage outside the pocket and Pierre Thomas next to Brees in shotgun:
I really don't know how defenses are going to defend this look:
Here he is as a lone back, taking a screen pass from Brees for a 12-yard touchdown:
McCoy might not be as crafty, but he can do a lot of this stuff. The key is that Philly now has a second player with that type of ability. However, you won't see McCoy split out wide like this very often:
As a wideout, he took that bubble screen for 10 yards.
Another example here. This time, he motions inside and runs a flawless out route for a 25-yard gain:
We've also seen him run some regular-receiver-type routes out wide. In fact, he caught two passes on comeback routes against the Eagles in last year's Wild Card Game. Here's one of them:
Here he is acting as a complete slot receiver, good for 13 yards on an out pattern against Atlanta:
And finally, here he is essentially playing tight end and making the Miami defense look really bad:
Sproles had seven catches of 20-plus yards, which ranked fourth among running backs, yet 38 backs were on the field for more snaps than he was. Overall since 2011, he's broken 31 plays for 20 or more yards—and that's not including his big plays as a returner.
Sean Payton is quite an offensive mastermind, but now Kelly gets his hands on Sproles. The Eagles love their packaged plays, so look for that and many other elements to be added to Sproles' game in 2014. There's no telling how dangerous this could be, which could at least soften the blow felt when Jackson was released.
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