Darren Sproles Is the NFL’s Extra Value Meal

Through two games, the league’s most influential player might very well be an afterthought who was acquired during the offseason for a fifth-round pick. No, Darren Sproles won’t actually win league MVP when things are all said and done. He’s not the MVP now on a cumulative basis. But in terms of what he’s done in improving his team’s win expectancy, Sproles has had an enormous impact on his new organization. Sproles may very well be the difference between the Eagles starting this season 2-0 and starting it 0-2. In consecutive weeks, he’s been the straw that stirred the drink during second-half comebacks for Philadelphia.

So why did so few teams want Sproles this offseason? And why didn’t that list include the 0-2 Saints, who leaked to reporters that they were cutting Sproles before finding a trade partner and taking the move back? Well, because teams almost always undervalue players like Sproles.

Sproles entered the league as a fourth-round pick of the Chargers in 2005, where he stepped in as the third running back behind LaDainian Tomlinson and Michael Turner before breaking his ankle before the 2006 season, missing the entire campaign. By 2008, he had become a devastating threat as a receiver, averaging 11.8 yards per catch, which is remarkable for a running back. He famously made his name during the playoffs that year, running for two scores against the Colts before catching five passes for 91 yards and a touchdown in a losing effort to Pittsburgh. The Chargers franchised him in 2009 and then gave him a qualifying offer in 2010 that boosted his salary by 10 percent. During those two seasons, he made a total of $13.9 million, which is somewhere in the vicinity of what he’s earned over his seven-plus other seasons in the league.

After a disappointing 2009 season behind an awful offensive line saw Sproles average just 3.7 yards per carry, the Chargers let him hit the market, where he caught on with an offensive mastermind in Sean Payton. The Saints had to give Sproles just a four-year, $14 million contract, trading him after three years of the deal.

While the Chargers saw a back too fragile to test with a starter’s workload and too small to run between the tackles, Payton saw a walking mismatch, a player who would embarrass linebackers in man coverage and look invisible to safeties 15 yards away. He was a running back who would do everything but play like a traditional running back. In his first game with the Saints, Sproles ran the ball only twice for a total of seven yards, but he caught seven passes for 75 yards, returned two kickoffs for a total of 76 yards, and fielded two punts, one of which he took to the house. In Week 2, he scored on a reception. In Week 3, he scored on a carry. He finished with 1,313 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns that season.

By the end of 2013, the Saints had to make a bet on Sproles’s future. Already over the cap heading into the offseason, New Orleans had to clear out space out of concern that an arbitrator might rule Jimmy Graham was a wide receiver, which would cost them an additional $5 million under the franchise tag. Also, the Saints wanted to use any other space they had to target star safety Jairus Byrd, who eventually signed with the team. With a cap hit of $3.5 million and the Saints unlikely to re-sign Sproles after the 2014 season, they decided to cut bait while they could. Other teams saw a player who might be past his prime and weren’t willing to take the risk by giving up more than a fifth-rounder.

Sproles was traded to the Eagles for the fifth-round pick New England sent to Philadelphia for Isaac Sopoaga, who started two games at defensive tackle for a desperate Patriots team last season. Sproles was never going to be a like-for-like replacement for LeSean McCoy, and Chip Kelly has a particular affection for big, tall receivers, but Sproles’s versatility and ability to catch passes all over the formation make him a very useful pawn in Kelly’s high-flying offense. The Eagles gave him a three-year, $10.5 million deal that is more realistically a two-year deal with $1 million in dead money during the third season.

He’s now swung both of Philadelphia’s games in the Eagles’ favor. With the Eagles down 17-0 to Jacksonville at halftime in Week 1 after a disastrous first half from Nick Foles, Sproles was the running back who took a quick snap on fourth-and-1 and ran 49 yards virtually untouched into the Jacksonville end zone for a critical opening score. Admittedly, as Chris Brown noted on Twitter, part of that was thanks to a very questionable defensive line split by the Jaguars, but Sproles was an unquestionable spark. He finished with 11 carries for 71 yards, four catches for 14 yards, and four punt returns for 62 yards.

He had an even larger impact against the Colts. With Foles again struggling to make consistent throws downfield (although admittedly not as badly as he did in Week 1), Sproles became his biggest weapon. With the Colts badly missing starting inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman, the Eagles were able to get Sproles matched up on backup Josh McNary early before moving to screens later in the contest. In all, Sproles caught all seven passes thrown to him, producing 152 receiving yards in the process. He threw in four carries for 26 yards, including a crucial 19-yard run on second-and-goal to tie the game at 20. His 51-yard reception set up the game-tying score in the fourth quarter, and on the next drive, his 17-yard catch-and-run left Philadelphia with a chip-shot field goal to win it, 30-27. After barely making a dent as a receiver last week, Sproles had nearly twice as many receiving yards as anybody else on the roster on Monday night.

Sproles is certainly benefiting from playing in a great offense — as he has for virtually an entire career — but he also makes the offenses around him better. It’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t have been worth a fourth-round pick to a team that could use a third-down weapon with big-play ability, with teams like Atlanta, Baltimore, and even Denver coming to mind. How could a player so impactful fall through the cracks?

By virtue of his archetype, of course. The pass-catching running back is an undervalued asset in football, a player who often spends his career moving around the league and reestablishing himself as a worthwhile talent in each stop. They often sign short-term contracts in free agency for less money than their numbers warrant. Take the most similar player to Sproles, Danny Woodhead. After signing Woodhead off waivers from the Jets, the Patriots used him in a limited role as their backup halfback from 2010 to 2012, during which he averaged 4.8 yards per carry and 10.7 yards per catch on 7.6 touches per game. With a ready replacement in Shane Vereen, the Patriots let Woodhead leave in free agency, where he got a two-year, $3.5 million deal from the Chargers. All he did there was produce 1,034 yards from scrimmage on 182 touches in 2013, scoring eight touchdowns in the process. Any team in football could use that for $1.75 million.

It’s not just Sproles or Woodhead, though. It’s their comparables from the past, guys like Eric Metcalf (seven teams in 13 seasons), Terry Kirby (four teams in 10 seasons), Amp Lee (four teams in nine seasons), and even a fullback like Larry Centers (four teams in 14 seasons). The one real pass-catching halfback who stayed in one spot for his entire career was Kevin Faulk, who had Bill Belichick at the helm from his second season onward. Nobody does a better job with player valuation in football than Belichick, and it’s no surprise he’s had Faulk, Woodhead, and Vereen on his rosters.

Having one Darren Sproles is really valuable, but what if you had two players like that on your roster? Could you line them up in the same backfield and dare opponents to cover them both on option routes? Would a couple 5-foot-6 guys with boundless agility be the best third-and-medium option in the league? Could you rotate them in the lineup frequently enough to keep one well-rested at all times, giving you a nightmare of a matchup on every single passing play?

Until they get their just due, players like Sproles will remain impact contributors on the cheap. And while Sproles isn’t going to score a touchdown each week, he’s going to be a meaningful contributor to Kelly’s offense. He’s already been impressive while the offense struggles to get going. Just imagine how dangerous Darren Sproles will be once the rest of the offense catches up to him.

Elisha Update

Oh, Eli Manning. You are Grantland’s patron saint. If you want to figure out whether your friendly local/national sports commentator actually watched the Giants game this past weekend, see what he or she wrote about Manning’s performance and his broader status with the team. If they criticize Manning for throwing two interceptions, they didn’t watch the game. Yes, it’s true (perhaps unsurprisingly) that Manning threw two picks. One was a totally irrelevant throw in garbage time, with the Giants on their side of the field down 11 points with nine seconds to go in the game.

The other, all the way back on the opening drive, was almost comically your typical Manning pick in Mad Libs form; a pass bounced off [unlikely defender]’s [unlikely body part] and deflected directly into the hands of [unlikely recipient of interception] leading to [unhappy sound emanating from the Meadowlands]. In this case, it was Tommy Kelly, arm, Sam Acho, and boos. After a frustrating Week 1 performance on national television, it’s easy to understand why it felt like the beginning of another ugly day for the Giants offense.

And then, somehow, someway, Manning was incredible. Against one of the league’s best pass defenses from a year ago, Manning dropped pass after pass into his receivers’ hands in stride. He threw at Patrick Peterson for one touchdown and set up another by drawing a defensive pass interference call on Peterson on a throw to Victor Cruz. He ran through progressions. His footwork looked smooth. It was, after a month of jokes, good Eli. Through the first three quarters, Manning went 19-of-23 for 218 yards with two touchdowns and that typically bizarre pick.

That’s when Eli Manning discovered he would not, in fact, escape his certain fate. Failure surrounded Manning on this day, and he would now discover that the players around him had no intention of succeeding. With the Giants up 14-13 in the fourth quarter, the home team faced a third-and-6 on its own 26-yard line. Needing a first down, Manning went to Cruz, his most experienced receiver and the weapon who claimed after the Lions loss that he needed more targets for the Giants to be successful. This is what happened:

OK, not great. It’s a pretty ugly drop for Cruz to make after his two drops during the Monday-night loss in Week 1, but it’s one bad play. Every receiver drops a pass here or there. That’s what I thought, too.

On the very next play, the Giants punted to Ted Ginn, who did Ted Ginn things; he bounced off of gunner Zack Bowman’s tackle within a second of catching the ball, made about four Giants miss, and took the ball to the house for a 71-yard touchdown. Very frustrating. After the Cardinals (correctly) went for two and failed, they were up 19-14.

That would be bad enough. It wasn’t. On the very next play, the Cardinals kicked off to Quintin Demps, one of the many veterans general manager Jerry Reese signed this offseason. Demps was excellent on kick returns under noted special teams coach Dave Toub in Kansas City last year, but Dave Toub doesn’t coach for the New York Giants. It might not be a surprise, then, that Demps got spun around and fumbled the kickoff away, with the Cardinals recovering. They kept things conservative with Drew Stanton under center and kicked a field goal to go up 22-14.

Good news! Demps fielded the next kickoff and returned it to the 20-yard line. Let’s see what the Giants dialed up on their first play after an incredibly frustrating turn of events:

Yeah, you’ve gotta bench Manning for Ryan Nassib, right? My favorite part of that play is the halfhearted no-we-shut-you-down-that-pass-is-incomplete hand wave from Cardinals safety Tony Jefferson like the Arizona defense had anything to do with that pass being incomplete. I mean, surely, we’re done with Cruz drops for the game, so let’s just move onto the next play …

I might have just walked off the field at this point if I were Manning. I think most people in the crowd would have understood. It’s fair to say this third pass wasn’t as catchable as the other two — it had to be thrown away from the defender in a spot where only Cruz could catch it — but given what had transpired on the previous two Giants plays from scrimmage, it was no less infuriating.

And yet, tossing Cruz aside, the Giants marched down the field. After drawing Kelly offside with a hard count, Manning picked up third-and-5 on a throw to Larry Donnell before hitting Donnell up the seam for 23 yards two plays later. After another third-down conversion to Donnell pushed the Giants into the red zone, they set up for second-and-10 from the Arizona 17-yard line. Manning checked down to running back Rashad Jennings, and then this happened:

You saw that right: It’s a catch, a slip, a fumble without being touched, and a recovery by the Cardinals. If I were Manning and I hadn’t walked off the field earlier, I definitely would have done so at this point. There are many problems with the Giants, and there are plenty of reasons they lost. Eli Manning, for his flaws, does not fit either description.

Chew? Toby Chew?

I wrote about the Jaguars a bit during Monday’s recap of Week 2, and I really don’t want to write about the same teams on Monday and Tuesday each week, but I’m breaking that rule all of two weeks in. You’ll understand why in a minute. I went back to the tape to get a second look at Kirk Cousins and what he did against the Jacksonville defense. It was a little better than I noticed from watching live, but the Jaguars were still awful on defense.

The more I watched, the more I noticed just how awful Jacksonville had been on offense. I quoted the numbers yesterday — 12 plays for one total net yard to start the game, 10 sacks of Chad Henne — but they failed to put things in their proper context. Right tackle Cameron Bradfield had one of the worst games I’ve ever seen from an NFL tackle, which is pretty impressive considering the right tackle on the opposite side of the field was Tyler Polumbus. Bradfield eventually got benched, after being blown up for sacks by Ryan Kerrigan on consecutive plays.

Then, apropos of nothing, I saw a rare play in which there actually was some space to work with on offense. I’m going to show you a screenshot now, and you’re probably not going to believe what I tell you after you see it. What would you do on this play if you were Toby Gerhart?


Would you run it into the ass of left tackle Luke Joeckel for two yards? Because that’s what Gerhart did. It’s not quite as obvious as it might seem, because there’s a linebacker lost in the trash from this screenshot who would have had a shot to at least take on Gerhart as he made it to the outside, but given half of a field of open space to work with, Gerhart instead chose to keep the ball inside and try to Tommie Frazier his way to a big gain. It did not work. Gerhart’s best as a north/south runner, so you can understand why he’s used to keeping the ball between the tackles. But part of your job as a running back, at least occasionally, is to break to the outside if there’s tons of space.

Gerhart finished with seven carries for eight yards. It’s easy to pick on the Jaguars, especially during what’s been a really ugly start to the season. Gerhart didn’t have much space to work with on his six other carries. For all the excuses I can make, there’s that image.

Filed Under: NFL, Toby Gerhart, Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Giants, Eli Manning, Victor Cruz, Darren Sproles, Philadelphia Eagles, Indianapolis Colts

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell