Darren Sproles is the Eagles' Swiss Army Knife. "You can use him," head coach Chip Kelly said last week, "in a million different ways."
That sounds great, doesn't it? And it opens up all kinds of possibilities for the versatile Sproles, who is part of the talented new-look offensive backfield that includes newly signed free agents DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews.
"He's an integral part in what we're doing here," Kelly said.
Sproles made it to the Pro Bowl in his first season with the Eagles and was also a second-team All-Pro return man, and he made the most of his reps within the offense. Sproles was on the field for 337 of the team's 1,176 offensive plays (29 percent) in 2014. Sproles had 57 rushing attempts and 40 receptions, gaining 716 total yards from the line of scrimmage and averaging 7.4 yards per touch.
The anticipated pairing with LeSean McCoy didn't quite work as many fans anticipated. The two were on the field together for only 38 snaps.
Obviously, the landscape is totally different in the Eagles' backfield now. McCoy was traded to Buffalo in exchange for linebacker Kiko Alonso. The Eagles landed Murray and Mathews in free agency.
In his first year as an Eagle, sprightly running back Darren Sproles revolutionized the Eagles' punt return game and provided a big spark each week on offense ...
Kelly is committed to running the football and he's got great options with three players who have played in Pro Bowls. The expectation is that Murray and Mathews will use their one-cut, downhill style and play physical football and receive a majority of the rushing attempts. Sproles will get his touches as the Eagles expand the creativity with which they use him.
Certainly, Sproles will continue as the team's punt return man after leading the NFL last season with a 13-yard average on 39 returns, including a pair of touchdowns. He could possibly help in the kickoff return game -- Sproles has a career average of 25.3 yards per kickoff return with two touchdowns scored on 329 returns -- although the Eagles have Chris Polk and Josh Huff, each of whom scored a touchdown on a kickoff return last year -- on the roster and is skilled at the drill.
Where Sproles could see his role change quite a bit is in how the Eagles use him in the passing game. After seasons in which Sproles caught 86 passes (2011), 75 (2012) and then 71 (2013) as a member of the New Orleans Saints, Sproles caught 40 passes in 2014. The Eagles spread the football around effectively and moved the football up and down the field, and Sproles was productive even when he didn't have the ball in his hands. Defenses double teamed him and they chipped in at the line of scrimmage and they did everything possible to prevent Sproles from creating space in single coverage against an overmatched linebacker.
As the Eagles tweak their offensive scheme, Sproles' skills very much come into play. He can be used on wheel routes out of the backfield, setting up a linebacker in the flat and then outracing him to the sideline for an easy pitch and catch from the quarterback. Sproles can displace out of the backfield and force a linebacker or a safety to match up in space at the line of scrimmage. He can walk out wide and line up as a receiver.
Think about the way the Patriots utilized running back Shane Vereen last season. Vereen caught 52 passes in the regular season and then was a move-the-chains weapon in New England's Super Bowl path, catching 18 passes in the three wins. Vereen had 11 receptions for 64 yards in the Super Bowl victory over Seattle. Five of those catches gained first downs.
On New England's touchdown drive that scored what turned out to be the winning points, quarterback Tom Brady went to Vereen four times in the passing game and Vereen also ran once.
Sproles brings more explosiveness to the arena, though. There are just so few players with the kind of short-area quickness that Sproles has. In 2014 he had the 49-yard touchdown to help ignite the Eagles in their comeback win over Jacksonville in the opener and then gained 178 yards from scrimmage -- including two receptions that each gained more than 50 yards -- with a bruising 19-yard touchdown run to help beat the Colts.
The touches from the line of scrimmage decreased after the Week 1 win over the Jaguars (15 touches) and the Week 2 thriller in Indianapolis (11 touches). Only once more, in the Week 16 loss at Washington, did Sproles hit double figures (10, for a total of 67 yards) in touches in a single game.
How Kelly and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur scheme to use Sproles in 2015 is one of the interesting developments for the offense. Does Sproles become more of a receiver than a running back? Is he going to be the third-down machine that the Eagles use to get in space to destroy linebackers who just can't contain him in single coverage?