Answering questions about the Eagles’ decision to bring Darren Sproles back

Darren Sproles is officially a member of the Philadelphia Eagles once again. Now let’s try to answer some questions raised by his return.

Why did Darren Sproles want to keep playing?

Sproles hardly NEEDS to keep playing football. He’s 36 years old. He has a family that lives out on the West Coast. He has a Super Bowl ring. He’s made $43,321,100 over the course of his career. He’s made NFL history by becoming the first player to ever log 30+ receiving touchdowns, 20+ rushing touchdowns, 1+ kickoff return touchdown, and 1+ punt return touchdown.

And yet, Sproles feels like he has unfinished business. He said it himself in an interview earlier this offseason:

“I want a full year. Actually want to get up to like, top four or five in all-purpose yards … like, ever.”

The “full year” comment refers to the fact Sproles has missed 23 regular season games over the past two seasons. Sproles suffered a torn ACL in addition to a broken arm in 2017. It was then a hamstring injury that plagued him in 2018.

Sproles is hoping he can stay healthy in 2019. He previously averaged 15.3 games played per season from 2007 through 2016, so you can see where the belief comes from.

Sproles is also very aware how he’s only 163 all-purpose yards shy of moving into fifth place on the all-time list.

Oh, and I suppose Sproles doesn’t mind coming back to a team that’s poised to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

DR. DAVID J. CHAO: Now, does part of your coming back … look, you have a Super Bowl ring —

SPROLES: Yeah, but. See, like, me … I want to play in the Super Bowl. You know what I’m saying? I was on the team, yeah, but I want to play in the Super Bowl.

Why did the Eagles want Darren Sproles back?

The Eagles already had Jordan Howard, Miles Sanders, and Corey Clement as their top three projected running backs. They also had the group of Boston Scott, Josh Adams, Wendell Smallwood, and Donnel Pumphrey competing for a fourth (and maybe even a fifth?) spot.

So, how does Sproles fit in?

I don’t think Sproles’ return changes a ton for Howard and Sanders; they’ll still be the top two Eagles backs when it comes to total touches. Howard should be especially unaffected since he doesn’t figure to be a big factor in the passing game. Remember, he’s averaged just 1.5 career receptions per game.

I do wonder how much Sanders’ inexperience may have factored into the Sproles decision. Sanders is expected to be a passing game factor at the NFL level but it might not come instantly for him. The 22-year-old only logged 32 receptions in three years at Penn State (1.125 per game). Sanders also missed all of Eagles OTAs/minicamp with a hamstring injury so it’s not like he’s been getting NFL practice reps to work on his receiving skills. Bringing Sproles back takes some pressure off Sanders as he develops.

It’s interesting to think about what Sproles’ return means for Corey Clement. The former undrafted rookie free agent signing showed potential as a third down back in 2017. The Eagles were internally high on Clement heading into 2018, per sources, but he struggled with injury issues and eventually ended the season on injured reserve. As of spring practices, Clement still wasn’t 100% recovered. So, maybe his status is another contributing reason to Sproles’ return.

As for the rest of the Eagles’ running backs, well, their realistic best case of making the team is as a fifth running back. And that doesn’t seem likely.

The Sproles return is especially bad news for Scott, whom Doug Pederson previously mentioned as a potential Sproles replacement. Scott was taking reps as the first team punt returner in the spring but it’s clear he’s lost that job to Sproles now. Sproles has a slight advantage in any punt return competition considering he has 300 career returns for seven touchdowns and a 9.6 average. Scott, meanwhile, has logged exactly zero punt returns in his entire collegiate and NFL regular season career combined.

Scott was generating some buzz from OTAs/minicamp but the truth is he wasn’t overly impressive. The signing of Sproles confirms as much.

Scott could still be in contention for the practice squad. The same goes for Adams, who really doesn’t have a path to making the 53-man roster (barring injury). Sproles being back might finally mean that Smallwood is a goner. I don’t even need to tell you that Pump won’t be on the 53. Ask yourself: are you really upset that Sproles will be making the team over one of these guys?

So, to recap, the Eagles will likely be keeping the following four running backs on their 53-man roster: Howard, Sanders, Clement, and Sproles. Howard and Sanders figure to be the main guys. Clement and Sproles are offensive role players who can contribute in the passing game along with playing on special teams. Sproles will be the team’s primary punt returner.

But isn’t Sproles cooked at this point?

Well, you can’t say the injuries aren’t concerning. Again, he’s played in just nine games over the past two seasons.

Sproles was also pretty ineffective in the playoffs earlier this year: 16 carries for 25 yards (1.6 average) and five receptions for 35 yards (7.0 average). He ain’t getting any younger, either.

But I don’t think Sproles’ tank is empty just yet. Think about the Week 16 Texans game last year. He had 119 all-purpose yards during that Eagles win. The breakdown:

9 rushes for 32 yards (team high 3.6 average)

3 receptions for 76 yards, 1 TD

1 punt return for 11 yards

Don’t forget about his clutch touchdown reception — on which he showed he can still make defenders miss — to help the Eagles tie the Cowboys in Week 14 [click here to watch].

Though it was a small sample size, Sproles’ 2018 regular season stats really weren’t bad. His 29 carries went for 120 yards and one rushing touchdown. That’s a respectable 4.1 average. Sproles had 15 receptions for 160 yards and two receiving touchdowns. His 10.7 yards per reception exceeded his 8.8 career average mark. As a punt returner, Sproles averaged 8.3 yards per try. That would’ve ranked tied for 13th among qualified returners last year, so it’s not like he showed to be useless in that area.

And going back to the injuries, one could argue Sproles is in a better spot now that he’s more than one year removed from his September 2017 ACL tear.

I think there’s enough evidence to believe that Sproles isn’t totally washed up. He can still help the Eagles win games in 2019. The coaching staff just needs to be smart about limiting his offensive role. The Eagles can’t be force-feeding him touches at the expense of someone who could be more productive with them.

At the very least, Sproles should be able to help on punt returns. He won’t have to take all the snaps there, either, since DeSean Jackson could get some looks in certain situations.

Who fills the Eagles’ remaining roster spot?

Two roster spots opened up earlier this week with Tyreek Burwell retiring and Devin Ross getting waived with a non-football injury designation. The Eagles re-signing Sproles means they now have one vacancy ahead of training camp. The team could easily look to fill it with a camp body.

Or maybe Sproles won’t be the only familiar face re-signing with Philly this summer?

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