It was possible to write off Darren Sproles as a role player of sorts for the Eagles. An integral part of the offense, yes, though not an every-down back or even a starter necessarily. A unique and dangerous weapon – just not somebody who was going to touch the ball 20 or more times most weeks.
Today is not the day to undersell Sproles’ meaning to this team. The 12-year veteran finished with a career-high 146 touches on offense last season. He led all Eagles running backs in snaps by far in 2016, and as recently as Week 2, was on the field for 50 of 72 plays. Oh, Sproles is the primary punt returner, too, and a three-time Pro Bowl selection at that.
Sproles’ skill set is pretty much impossible to replicate. What the Eagles must now hope is Sproles’ production isn’t impossible to replace after his injuries turned out to be season-ending.
Here’s how it can be done in theory. In practice, well … that’s going to have to be another story.
The player who has the most to gain from this is Smallwood, by virtue of being the most accomplished receiver out of the backfield currently on the 53-man roster. Of course, LeGarrette Blount has spread 48 receptions over an eight-year NFL career, while rookie Corey Clement is still working his way into the rotation, so that isn’t saying much.
While he’s certainly no Sproles, Smallwood does have decent hands. He caught 53 passes for 476 yards in his final two seasons at West Virginia, and finished with six receptions for 55 yards while playing limited snaps for the Eagles in 2016. Smallwood also looks like the most quick-twitch, slippery runner of the trio, which perhaps makes him the best option to split out wide or line up in the slot – should the Eagles choose to continue using those looks.
Smallwood is the clear frontrunner to serve as the primary third-down back, though somewhat by default. He has just 105 touches as a pro, and his pass protection remains a concern. Then again, somebody has to do the job, preferably a back who could conceivably catch a pass or two, and for Week 4 in Los Angeles at least, it appears that’s going to be Smallwood.
We can’t discount Clement entirely. We know for a fact that Blount isn’t going to see much third-down work, but Eagles coach Doug Pederson specifically mentioned Clement as an option. Based on what we saw in the preseason, it might not be too farfetched, either.
An undrafted free agent from Wisconsin, Clement came in with a reputation as a bruising, between-the-tackles runner. However, he’s shown quite a bit more burst and quickness than maybe was anticipated, while also putting in steady work in the passing game. Clement finished the preseason with seven receptions for 46 yards, plus looked solid in protection throughout.
Clement still isn’t as fast or elusive as Smallwood, so don’t expect to see him lining up at receiver or anything like that. Clement isn’t a terrible option in passing situations, as at the very least he can keep the quarterback clean, in addition to running the basic routes in the tree to help move the sticks.
Marshall is currently on the Eagles' practice squad, with the roster still sitting at 52 players, he certainly might be in line for a promotion. Given his skill set, that also might make a lot more sense than trying to shoehorn Smallwood or Clement into a role they don’t necessarily fit.
Pederson has said on multiple occasions that Marshall is cross-training at running back and receiver. That sounds an awful lot like what Sproles does for the Eagles, doesn’t it? Marshall also played both positions at Oregon, posting a 1,000-yard season on the ground as a sophomore, and a 1,000-yard season through the air as a junior.
But that was college. There’s really no context for doing it in the NFL. Undrafted in 2016, Marshall was active for three games last season, recording 19 carries for 64 yards and three receptions for 10 yards. It’s not a large enough sample size to draw any definitive conclusions, although the fact that he’s still on the practice squad suggests he’s not the answer.
There is no shortage of players who are in the mold of Sproles. There are a very select view for whom it translates on the field. Marshall is intriguing and may warrant a look. At the same time, he’s a bit of a long shot to fill the void in the Eagles' offense.
There’s a lot of talk about how the Eagles will go about plugging the hole in the Eagles' offense, but what about on special teams? Torrey Smith was something of a surprise to take over Sproles’ punt return duties on Sunday. After all, Smith had never previously returned a punt in his seven-year NFL career, nor at Maryland for that matter.
Perhaps Agholor would be a better option, seeing as he actually has some experience in the role. He was pretty good at it, too, you might recall. Agholor returned 37 punts for a 14.6 average and four touchdowns in two seasons for the Trojans. Why not give him a shot?
The Eagles are currently in the process of trying to rebuild Agholor’s confidence, so sticking him back there on an island might sound a bit tenuous. At the same time, what would be a better ego boost than expanding his role with the team? They should really be working Agholor in as the primary return man at practice, because he’s currently the best they’ve got.
How desperate are the Eagles to make a deep playoff run this season? Because if they are serious about making a big push, there are some Sproles clones and cheap imitations that are likely available to be had in a trade.
The Patriots could no doubt afford to part with Dion Lewis. The Broncos' backfield is getting crowded, so Jamaal Charles could be available. Do the Jets really have any use for Bilal Powell? These are just a few examples, but there is always somebody out there.
It doesn’t necessarily behoove the Eagles to deal draft picks at this point, because let’s face it, are any of those guys going to truly replace Sproles? Probably not, but it is technically an option, and would not be surprising at all to learn the front office has explored those paths.
Ultimately, the Eagles are probably better of trying to replace Sproles in the aggregate with the pieces that are remaining on the roster.