The Darren Sproles Conundrum
What does a coach do when his front office signs a guy who is good at a few specific things, and his starter is just as good – if not better – at those same things? It’s an interesting question, and one that Chip Kelly will have to answer as he now has both LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles to work with. Finding enough touches to go around will be Kelly’s biggest problem, but if you are an Eagles – or even an Oregon Ducks – fan, you know that if anyone’s up to the task, it’s Kelly.
For fantasy purposes, what does one do with Sproles? If you’re a standard league guy, chances are, depending on how deep your league is, he was way down on your list and an afterthought most of the time. If you are a point per reception player, hopefully you had him targeted as a nice flex option every season. There’s no doubt his role and touches from his days in New Orleans are going to change, so let’s take a look at some numbers and hash out what we might be able to expect in 2014.
We don’t have much NFL information to pull from Kelly, but a full season and a playoff game is, at the very least, a solid indicator of some things to expect. We all know Sproles is not a between the tackles back. He’s a change of pace guy that’s good for a few carries a game, a great outlet for your quarterback, and a nice option to return kicks. He provided Drew Brees an embarrassment of riches, and his time in a Saints uniform was as productive as anyone could have hoped for. Sproles most likely won’t be taking any significant amount of carries away from McCoy, but he is a specialist that causes matchup nightmares for defenses so there’s no doubt he’ll be involved.
In 2013, Eagles’ running backs caught 68 passes (including the playoff game) – 56 of which by McCoy – and Nick Foles and Mike Vick combined for more rushing attempts than any running back not nicknamed Shady. In Kelly’s defense, outside of McCoy, the Eagles didn’t have a whole lot of running back talent on the roster to work with. Bryce Brown had shown flashes in his short career, but he averaged only 4.2 yards per carry in 2013 on 74 rushing attempts compared to 4.9 in 2014, and now he is on the Bills.
While it’s extremely hard to look at someone’s college coaching career to point to anything he may do in the NFL, it is necessary in Kelly’s case because we have just 17 NFL games to draw from. In his six seasons in Eugene, Oregon leading the Ducks, Kelly had four running backs who possessed similar size, skill, and attributes to Sproles, and he was extremely successful in using all of them. LaMichael James, De’Anthony Thomas, Kenjon Barner, and Jeremiah Johnson all flourished under Kelly’s tutelage. Take a look at their combine/pro day numbers – all look very similar to Sproles.
|Height||Weight||40 Dash||20 Yd Dash||10 Yd Dash|
As you can see, all four are small, compact backs with quick feet. Johnson is somewhat of an outlier here as he is bigger than the others, but he possesses similar quickness. Sproles falls right in line with the group, even though he’s shorter than the others. One also has to wonder if Kelly made any kind of serious push for James. The disgruntled 49er had an extremely successful career at Oregon, and his transition to Kelly’s offense would have been a smooth one. Considering his numbers are off the charts, you have to wonder what that says about James’ potential as an NFL player. He is all but gone from the 49ers’ roster, and would have been a much cheaper option than Sproles.
James was the featured back in the Ducks’ offense all three years he played with Kelly, so his numbers aren’t going to do us much good in relation to what Sproles might do as a backup/3rd down back. Johnson was only with Kelly for two seasons: one as a limited backup, and one as the starter, so seeing what he can do as a No. 2 is inadequate as well. But, the two and three years respectively that De’Anthony Thomas and Kenjon Barner spent as backups in Kelly’s offense can possibly provide us with some insight as to how Sproles may be used.
|Avg As Backup w/Kelly||Attempts||Rush Yds||Rush TDs||Rec||Rec Yds||Rec TDs|
As you can see, both played pivotal roles. Thomas was obviously a much bigger part of the passing game than Barner, but Barner shared more of the rushing load than Thomas. We can look at Thomas as having more of the Darren Sproles type skills as he is the closest to Sproles’ size and quickness.
For reference, here are Johnson and James’ averages with Kelly. While the pair were starting running backs four of their five seasons in Eugene, Kelly obviously knows how to get the most out of backs their size:
|Avg. With Kelly||Attempts||Rush Yds||Rush Tds||Rec||Rec Yds||Red Tds|
While Thomas is the only one of the quartet who caught a lot of balls, we can see that Kelly is not opposed to getting his No. 2 guys the ball through the air, and that’s good news for Sproles as that is obviously this best attribute. One positive thing we can see is just how much each backup ran the ball. McCoy isn’t exactly known for his durability, and Kelly’s backups in Oregon averaged a healthy amount of carries, so it’s very possible Sproles will see more touches on the ground in Philadelphia than he did in New Orleans.
If Darren Sproles has been anything, it’s consistent. Since 2009, he’s averaged 66 rushing attempts and 67 receptions per year. His receiving numbers did increase during his time in New Orleans, but his total touches and total touches per game were pretty consistent, even though he was with two different teams during those five seasons. He did see an increase in receiving touchdowns, but that is to be expected in an offense lead by Drew Brees and Sean Payton.
One caveat to these numbers that should be noted: it’s no surprise that Drew Brees set the NFL mark for passing yards in a season the first year Darren Sproles arrived. While Nick Foles’ numbers were off the charts in 2013, an increase in yards per game could reasonably be expected with Sproles in town.
Dynamic & Important
So, just how dynamic and important has Sproles been in the last five years? While he was a part of some very good offenses, he no doubt was a big part of their successes. Over the last five seasons, every offense he played in ranked in the top 10, four were in the top five, and two were No. 1. He was even more important to the passing game. All five teams ranked in the top five for passing, four were top two, and two were No. 1.
Over that same time frame, Sporles lead all running backs in total receptions, receiving yards, yards per reception, receiving touchdowns, and yards per game. McCoy is fourth on the list in most of those categories, but well behind Sproles in all of them.
2014 & Beyond
It’s hard to argue that Sproles is anything but a boost to every offense he’s been a part of. He’s a PPR goldmine for his fantasy owners, but what does this all mean for the future? Can fantasy players count on Sproles to be the old reliable PPR gem that he’s been over the last five seasons? The answer is unknown, but I doubt anyone would argue that he will equate, or surpass, his numbers over the last three seasons in New Orleans. McCoy is probably the most gifted back in the NFL, and the Eagles are not going to shy away from him getting the ball, but that doesn’t mean Sproles won’t be a valuable player in PPR leagues.
In Sproles’ time in a Chargers uniform, he also played with a gifted back, a guy by the name of LaDanian Tomlinson (and Ryan Mathews in 2010). In reality, his time in Philadelphia will probably be similar to his time in San Diego when LT was the man. Those results weren’t awful for a third down back, and they can be serviceable in PPR leagues for a flier or fill in.
In reality, none of us know what Sproles will do in Philadelphia. He is getting older, and he could be relegated to a spot player who can’t get on the field because the starter is just too good. Or, his offensive minded head coach could recognize what he does well, exploit it to a regressed but respectable level, and take some of the burden off of his all-world starter.
For our sake, let’s hope it’s the latter.
Gary Althiser is a diehard 49ers and San Francisco Giants fan. He feels weird talking about himself in third-person, but if you want to find him, he usually spends his free time on Twitter irrationally arguing about Alex Smith, or sobbing after NFC championship games. @NFLGary