Big people smash little people. That was a quip from Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly that led many to believe that size would have a major influence on personnel decisions under the new regime. Though the “bigger is better” mantra has been evident in the construction of the 2014 roster, one of the key components of the team is shorter than the average American male. By three inches. At 5’6 and 181 pounds, newly acquired Eagles running back Darren Sproles is barely taller than my girlfriend but should carry a big role in Chip Kelly’s potent offense.
When the Eagles made the move to acquire Sproles by trading a 5th round pick, it was a bit of a surprise as running back wasn’t assumed to be a high priority for any off season moves. Philadelphia lead the league in rushing and seemed to have adequate depth at the position. Also it was highly likely that the New Orleans Saints would cut Sproles anyway, thus allowing him to hit the open market as a free agent. So why did the Eagles give up a mid round pick, then turn around and offer a 2 year contract extension to a 30 year old running back? Don’t they know that most NFL teams have devalued that position to where most 30 year old backs are put out to pasture? Why did Chip Kelly then trade running back Bryce Brown to the Buffalo Bills, when Brown is only 23 and he ran for more yardage than Sproles last year?
The answer to those questions lies in the versatility that a chess piece like the diminutive Sproles provides. Coach Kelly has specific traits that he covets for his unique offensive system. And it is pretty obvious that the pass catching ability that Sproles has demonstrated throughout his career was a key factor in making the move. However, one can envision Sproles getting more carries with the Eagles than the 53 he had with the Saints last season. As the primary backup to halfback LeSean McCoy, 100 carries might not be a stretch. Kelly was not afraid to use smaller scat backs during his time at the University of Oregon, and his east/west running game benefits from the lateral quickness and cut back ability of more explosive runners.
When defenses had success against the Eagles offense, it was primarily by loading the box to stop McCoy, challenging the outside receivers in press coverage, and daring the quarterback to throw into tight windows. With the departure of former Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson, expect to see even more of this tactic. So as a counter move, the Sproles acquisition allows Coach Kelly the flexibility to win against man coverage even if his outside receivers struggle to do so. Teams will be in a quandary when their cover linebacker has to match up with Sproles and/or McCoy in space. The quicker you beat man coverage, the quicker you see more zone, so quarterback Nick Foles will have more options to expose defenses in key third down situations with Sproles in the arsenal. His 71 catches last year would’ve ranked second on the Eagles, trailing only DeSean Jackson’s 82.
Though Sproles has been a dangerous return man for his career, he struggled on both punt and kick returns last year in New Orleans. His 6.7 yards per punt return and 21.3 yards per kick return both make the case that maybe he has lost some explosiveness. However he still displays a burst when you look at film of him from last season, and he had a key return late in the playoff loss to the Saints. Sproles can still get it done on special teams, and I’m sure the Eagles will utilize him in different ways to impact games.
Darren Sproles will be Chip Kelly’s Swiss army knife, a versatile weapon that can easily be transitioned to do specific tasks. I think the effort made to acquire him underscores the value that will be placed on his utilization this season. Even though the same was thought of tight end/fullback James Casey last year, I feel as though the veteran Sproles will have an easier time getting acclimated to the system, thus making it easier for Kelly to maximize his touches. Hopefully this allows McCoy to stay fresh down the stretch, and keep Foles upright, as he will be able to get rid of the ball quicker with such a proficient check down option available.