A running back coming off a major knee injury who turns 35 this summer. Normally, this would be a no-brainer.
And actually it is a no-brainer.
Bring him back.
Darren Sproles is not a normal human being, and he’s certainly not a normal running back. Most running backs his age aren’t just washed up, they’re out of the league and have been for years.
Running back is a young man’s game.
Only six of the 133 NFL 1,000-yard rushing seasons over the last decade were by backs in their 30s. Running backs routinely lose their effectiveness or even retire after two or three big seasons.
The wear and tear of getting battered down after down, week after week, takes a toll on running backs that wide receivers and quarterbacks don’t endure.
Then there’s Sproles.
Since turning 30, he’s averaged 4.5 yards per carry, which ranks 12th of 97 running backs — of any age — with at least 200 carries since 2013.
Since turning 30, he has 225 receptions, eighth-most among all NFL running backs over the last five years.
Since turning 30, he has four punt return touchdowns, tied with Deion Sanders for most in NFL history by a player in his 30s.
Here’s a list of every player in NFL history to average 4.5 yards per carry and catch 200 passes in his 30s: Darren Sproles.
Sproles in his 30s is better than most running backs in their 20s. His body was just built differently. And it doesn’t hurt that he’s never had to carry the load. He’s averaged about 8 ½ offensive touches per game over the last decade, a perfect number for him to be electrifying but still not get beat up.
You don’t bring back Sproles because he’s a great guy or a tremendous leader. You don’t bring him back because of his tremendous heart or how he inspires his teammates.
You bring him back because you’re a better football team with him than without him.
Sproles spoke last summer about retiring after the 2017 season, but after suffering a season-ending injury in the first Giants game and then watching his teammates win the Super Bowl, Sproles has decided he wants to play at least one more year with the Eagles, and Doug Pederson said at the owners’ meetings he wants Sproles back.
So it’s apparently now just a matter of figuring out a salary that makes sense for the cap-strapped Eagles. But they’ll get it done.
Maybe one day Sproles will slow down. Maybe.
But in 2016, his last full season, he became only the seventh running back in NFL history in his 30s — and the first at least 33 years old — to average 4.7 yards per carry and catch 50 passes.
He also averaged 13.2 yards on punt returns, second-highest ever by a 33-year-old.
We know Pederson likes to use rotate his backs, and a rotation of Jay Ajayi, Corey Clement and Darren Sproles works for me. And if you get anything out of Wendell Smallwood or Donnel Pumphrey it’s a bonus.
Give Sproles six to eight touches on offense along with punt returns and I don’t care if he’s 50, he’s going to help you win football games.
Only 10 running backs in NFL history have netted 250 yards from scrimmage in a season after their 35th birthday, and six of them are in the Hall of Fame.
Only 10 in the 98-year history of the NFL.
But that doesn’t mean Sproles won’t be an effective back at 35. It just means that number is going up to 11.