How Darren Sproles Fits in Crowded Philadelphia Eagles Backfield

Andrew Kulp@@KulpSaysContributor IAugust 10, 2015

Philadelphia Eagles' Darren Sproles celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the first half of an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers, Monday, Nov. 10, 2014, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Michael Perez)
Michael Perez/Associated Press

You might call Darren Sproles the Philadelphia Eagles’ secret weapon, only everybody knows by now exactly what the 11th-year veteran is capable of. In fact, Sproles was arguably one of the Birds’ most valuable players in 2014, scoring eight touchdowns—six rushing, two punt return—many of them in clutch spots.

No, there is nothing covert about Sproles. The secret is figuring out how to stop him, whether he's running, receiving or returning kicks, which defenses have yet to find an answer for.

Although, now that the Eagles signed DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews this offseason, a pair of Pro Bowl backs with multiple 1,000-yard seasons under their belt, maybe opposing teams will simply see less of Sproles moving forward?

Eagles Running Backs in 2014
DeMarco Murray163921,8454.713
Ryan Mathews6743304.53
Darren Sproles15573295.86

No, probably not. True, Sproles will likely carry the ball less than the 57 times he did last season—his highest total since 2011—when it was basically only him and LeSean McCoy in Philadelphia’s backfield. On the other hand, it doesn’t necessarily equate to fewer touches overall for Sproles. What it means is the 32-year-old should see more action in the passing attack.

As amazing as Sproles’ first season in midnight green was, some couldn’t help feeling he was underutilized as a receiver, which has really been his bread and butter as an NFL player. Forty receptions were his fewest since 2008—Sproles’ breakout season with the San Diego Chargers.

Bill Feig/Associated Press
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Yet if training camp has been any indication, Sproles will be a lot more active in that capacity. Not only is he catching more passes out of the backfield, but he’s been lining up in the slot with greater frequency as well, as he often did prior to his arrival in Philly in three seasons for the New Orleans Saints.

Eagles head coach Chip Kelly was asked specifically about Sproles’ appearances in the slot during the first week of camp.

“As we said in the offseason, it's Year Two for [Sproles], so I think he feels really comfortable in terms of what our running backs are doing,” Kelly explained. “So now we are just kind of cross-training him like we do some other guys in terms of how do we get our best players on the field and put them in different situations."

As he alluded to, it’s not the first time we’ve heard Kelly mention the ability to move the 2014 Pro Bowler around the offense. In a press conference carried on PhiladelphiaEagles.com after the Murray and Mathews signings back in March, the head coach described Sproles as a Swiss army knife, adding, “You can use him a million different ways.”

Of course, we saw Sproles line up in the slot or in duel-back formations on occasion last summer, but we seldom saw either look in an actual game. However, the thinking is that as long as Murray and Mathews are eating up the bulk of the carries, that allows Kelly to deploy Sproles in more imaginative ways.

Sproles' Eagles/Saints Season Splits
PHI, 2014573296403870
NOR, 2011-13 (AVG)62.7355.71.777.3660.35.3

One thing is for sure: Wherever he lines up, nobody on the Eagles defense has been able to cover Sproles on a route this summer. Whether it’s one-on-ones, seven-on-seven or full team drills, the 5’6”, 190-pound back wins practically every time.

Matt Rourke/Associated Press

And the diminutive runner still plays with a chip on his shoulder regardless of his role, even in light-contact drills. At Sunday’s practice, Sproles caught a swing pass out of the backfield, raced up the sidelines and, as he was going out of bounds, lowered his shoulder, and dropped rookie cornerback JaCorey Shepherd.

Unfortunately, Shepherd may have been seriously injured, with Les Bowen for the Philadelphia Daily News reporting a torn ACL is feared for the defensive back. As for Sproles, he just keeps on ticking, having missed just six games total since 2007.

Sproles is no stranger to crowded backfields, either. As a member of the Saints, he was often rotating in and out of the lineup with the likes of Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Chris Ivory, to name a few. Sproles still managed to produce 3,048 yards from scrimmage in three seasons with New Orleans.

In Kelly’s prolific offense that has ranked in the top five in yards and scoring in each of the head coach’s first two seasons, there should be plenty of footballs to go around. Even if that means Sproles will be utilized more as a receiver in 2015, which, based on his previous experience, isn’t necessarily a bad thing anyway.

All quotes and camp observations are the author's, unless otherwise noted.


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