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Evaluating the Eagles' Darren Sproles replacement options

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USA Today Images

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.

A look at Sixers' championship odds after round 1 win over Heat

A look at Sixers' championship odds after round 1 win over Heat

The Philadelphia 76ers and their fans absolutely relished the round 1 series victory over the Miami Heat. But enjoy it for a day or so and then it's time to look ahead.

The Sixers' round 2 opponent has yet to be determined. If the Celtics defeat the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday night, the Sixers would play in Boston on Saturday night at 8:00 pm to kick off the second round. If the Bucks keep the series alive tomorrow, the Sixers' first game of round 2 is TBD.

As JJ Redick said last night, this team has kept achieving its goals and setting new ones. 

"This group won 10 games two years ago, 28 games last year, we were 25-25 with 5 games to go before the All-Star break, so this is new to us as a group," Redick said. "The interesting thing that has happened is we've changed our goals now like four times. It was make the playoffs, it was win 50 games, it was home-court [advantage], then it was third seed. We don't feel any sense of complacency. This group is still hungry. We want more."

So how about an NBA title... this season? Of remarkable note: the Sixers opened up the season at +15000 to win the NBA championship and are now +850. That's wild.

Oddsmakers have the Sixers as the third-favorite, as of this morning, to win the 2018 NBA championship behind the Golden State Warriors (+105) and Houston Rockets (+160), according to both Bovada. Cleveland (+1000) and Toronto (+1100) aren't super far behind.

As for the Sixers' odds to win the East? How about a slight favorite, according to VegasInsider. Philly (8/5) is just a tiny bit ahead of Toronto (17/10) with Cleveland (3/1) being the only other team with a shot better than 20/1.

"We've got more to do," Brett Brown said last night.

An Eagles draft with less despair than usual

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AP

An Eagles draft with less despair than usual

The NFL Draft is an important time for every team, every year. There’s also no denying it’s less consequential for the Eagles in 2018 than any other point in franchise history – or at least feels that way.

That’s obviously not an attitude the front office was taking while preparing for this draft, nor is it the approach decision makers will use when they’re on the clock. There’s always room for improvement, and the Eagles perpetually have one eye on the future.

But outside the secret underground bunkers deep beneath the NovaCare Complex where the Eagles’ draft boards are set, not everybody views this year’s class with the same sense of urgency.

How can you? The Eagles currently own just one pick in the first three rounds, which means they will largely be bystanders during the first and second rounds of the draft. And the one selection they are schedule to make is the 32nd and final pick in the first round, greatly reducing the odds it will be an impact player.

Trades are inevitable as the Eagles try to add more choices – that perhaps more than the names of the players chosen might be the main source of intrigue. Still, there’s only so much the club can hope to accomplish with such limited firepower to start with.

There aren’t many areas a rookie would be expected to come in and produce immediately on this squad, anyway. I’m not sure if you heard, but the Eagles just won the Super Bowl and are set to return starters or regular contributors at every position.

Even from the simple standpoint the Eagles are finally world champions, the pressure is off compared to previous years.

None of which is intended to imply the draft isn’t of immense value to the Eagles since they lack picks, or holes, or because the fanbase is temporarily placated. Clearly, it would be a huge help if the front office hits on No. 32, or any of their five picks between rounds four through seven.

The Eagles can’t possibly depend on that happening, either. The prospects are already a lot more hit or miss by the end of the first round, after you’ve waited four hours. By the fourth, only the true draftniks or serious college football fans will recognize many of the names.

And that’s okay. In fact, it’s better than okay. For the first time since NFL draft coverage became a thing, there’s no need to obsess or despair over what the Eagles are going to do.

Partly because the Eagles can’t do much – partly because they’ve already done what they needed to do.