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Evaluating the Eagles' Darren Sproles replacement options

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Evaluating the Eagles' Darren Sproles replacement options

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. 

Wendell Smallwood
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.

Corey Clement
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.

Byron Marshall
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.

Nelson Agholor
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.

Trade
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.

Eagles can put up points in scary-quick fashion

Eagles can put up points in scary-quick fashion

When the Eagles went into the locker room Sunday night for halftime at AT&T Stadium, they were trailing the Cowboys, 9-7. After Nigel Bradham returned a fumble for a touchdown with 10:43 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Eagles led 37-9.

An eight-play, 75-yard drive ending with a Corey Clement touchdown run and a two-point conversion took 4:04 off the clock. A five-play, 90-yard series capped by a Torrey Smith touchdown grab and two to Alshon Jeffery took 2:28. An 11-play, 85-yard march finished with six to Jeffery in 5:48. Obviously, Bradham’s score lasted only seconds.

In a matter of 20 minutes, the Eagles had scored 30 points. And it wasn’t the first time this team has put points on the board in bunches.

Against the Broncos two weeks ago, the Eagles racked up 31 points in the span of about 24 minutes in the first half. The previous game, they posted 17 over a period of fewer than 12 minutes in the second and third quarters to pull away from the 49ers. And one week earlier, the Eagles went from down 10-3 to up 24-10 on the Redskins with three touchdown drives in 13 minutes during quarters two and three.

That’s just the last four games. The Eagles have shown the ability to light up the scoreboard quickly just about every week this season.

Thirteen points in under 15 minutes against the Panthers. Twenty-one points in the first quarter alone on the Cardinals. Thirteen points in the final seven minutes to come from behind and beat the Giants.

The Eagles don’t just score a lot. They do score a lot, of course — their 320 points leads the NFL.

The Eagles score a lot, and they often pour it on when they do, in a manner that demoralizes opponents. Once that wound is picked open, it can take a whole quarter to stop the bleeding. Lately, it’s been the better part of a half of football.

It’s not as if teams are responding, matching scoring drives or going point for point with the Eagles, either. Once the floodgates open, opponents are often facing an insurmountable deficit after the devastation.

The offense is moving the ball, but the defense is creating turnovers and getting off the field, too, occasionally even finding the end zone themselves. The Eagles have three defensive touchdowns on the season, and their 20 takeaways are good for third in the NFL.

What does it all mean? The Eagles are 9-1, best record in the league, and quarterback Carson Wentz is the frontrunner to win the Most Valuable Player award. They have the No. 1 run defense in the league, rank first in point differential and second in turnover differential. At this point, it’s no secret this is one of the best teams in the game.

But should the Eagles ever find themselves in a position where they’re behind late — something that hasn’t happened in going on months – you know they’re not out of it. Even if they’re trailing by three possessions in the fourth quarter, the defense can get some holds, and Wentz can get 21 points in a hurry. He’s done it before.

And if the Eagles aren’t trailing, and they go on a huge run, you know the tides have likely changed for good.

Recently, it hasn’t been a question of “if” at all, but “when” the Eagles start scoring in bunches. The Eagles are averaging just short of 34 points during their eight-game winning streak, and have finished with no fewer than 26 during that stretch.

It doesn’t always happen right out of the gate, but the Eagles keep on scoring in droves.

Joel Embiid roasted the Warriors even after tough loss

Joel Embiid roasted the Warriors even after tough loss

Every time Joel Embiid takes the basketball court — or pulls his phone out of his pocket — he has the ability to surprise us with a new move.

Jojo went toe-to-toe with the NBA's best Golden State Warriors on Saturday night, particularly chatting it up with Draymond Green, and held his own in a tough loss in front of a packed house of Philadelphia Sixers fans.

Embiid is clearly in opposing teams' heads at this early stage of his career. Prior to the game Saturday, Warriors coach Steve Kerr said what Joel did in L.A. last week was "terrifying." Then, following the Golden State win, Kevin Durant said they didn't want to lose to the Sixers because then they'd have to hear about it from Embiid on Twitter afterward.

“We wanted to win this game really, really bad. After being down by so much. And we didn’t want to lose to these guys, especially [Embiid]," Durant said.

“He woulda gone straight to Twitter and start talkin’ shit.”

Welp. The Sixers lost and Embiid found a way to roast the Warriors anyway. That's a new one!

The man is creative. A classic throwback burn to the legendary 3-1 collapse to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Lovely.

There's something about the way Embiid talks trash that other teams appreciate. Following the game on Saturday night, Draymond said he respects Embiid's trash talk game because he doesn't just talk when the Sixers are winning, he talks smack the entire game no matter what.

That's dedication to his craft.