There was a point in his career where Darren Sproles wasn’t just good at returning kicks. He was one of the best in the business.
It might be time for him to go back there again.
Because even though he’s 35, coming off an ACL surgery and has returned a total of just three kicks in his four years as an Eagle, I think the Eagles should seriously consider using Sproles as a kickoff returner this season.
“Whatever they want me to do, I’ll do,” Sproles said Saturday.
He could definitely make an impact as a kick returner, in addition to his punt return duties.
The Eagles have clearly been toying with the idea during this training camp. Special teams coordinator Dave Fipp cited the limited number of options as one of the reasons Sproles has been working as a kick returner, that doesn’t seem to be where the intrigue ends.
There’s a new kickoff rule in place this season aimed to make the play safer, but it will probably result in more returns and a play that falls somewhere between a punt and an old-school kick return.
Sproles said he thinks the new rule could help him as a kick returner if he’s back there.
“I feel like there’s more space back there,” he said.
Sproles in space, even at 35 years old, is a good idea.
Darren Sproles just got a hug from Doug Pederson, then started to work on punt returns. pic.twitter.com/bvVJKFvGHM— Dave Zangaro (@DZangaroNBCS) July 29, 2016
Now, Fipp said he thinks the new kickoff will look more like an old-school kickoff than a punt, quickly striking down the first reason why playing Sproles back there would make sense.
Even though Sproles was listed as the team’s kick returner on the first unofficial roster, Fipp was quick to shoot it down some more:
“I would say, right now, to be determined. I don’t see it being a primary role for [Sproles]. Could he jump back in there if we needed him at some point or something like that? I’m sure he could.”
Fipp said the team needs to weigh the risk/reward when thinking about using Sproles as a kick returner. There are plenty of factors that go into the decision.
What does the play look like at the end of the preseason?
Is this the best way for him to help the team?
Is it worth the added injury risk?
If he does become a kick returner, do they limit him?
“He’s obviously a great punt returner,” Fipp said. “He would be a great kick returner if he were back there all the time. It’s just whether or not that’s the best thing for the football team. At this point, you have to weigh it.”
Perhaps the biggest reason to allow Sproles to return kicks is the emergence of Corey Clement. After Sproles went down last year, and after Wendell Smallwood couldn’t hold the role, Clement emerged as the Eagles’ third-down back. That is the down where Sproles has excelled as a dual-threat running back. But Clement is coming off a Super Bowl where he had 100 receiving yards. It’ll be harder to leave him on the sideline this year.
So if Clement takes away some of those third-down snaps from Sproles, it just makes sense to let Sproles impact the game another way.
For most players, it probably wouldn’t make sense to look back at their stats from over five years ago, but Sproles is somehow ageless, so let’s make an exception for him.
From 2005-11, Sproles averaged 25.4 yards per kick return. His 7,558 kick return yards during that span were second in the NFL behind Josh Cribbs — and Sproles missed a full season in that span. Since then, Sproles has just 33 total returns (although his average hasn’t dropped terribly far with those — 24.0 per return).
Despite not being an everyday kick returner for now half of his career, Sproles is still eighth all-time in kick return yards with 8,350.
And if there’s one area where the Super Bowl champs could use a boost, it’s in the kick return game. They brought back just 18 kickoffs for 354 yards last season — both were dead last in the NFL. Their average of 19.7 yards per return was tied for 26th in the NFL.
Plus, the Eagles no longer have Kenjon Barner, who was their primary kick returner last season. Wendell Smallwood, who has returned kicks in recent years, is on the team but is also on the bubble. Shelton Gibson looked good in the role in the first preseason game but has never returned one when the games matter.
And if you’re worried about an increased workload, don’t be. Even if he returns every kick, he’s probably looking at about 20-25 all season. Just 12 players in the league had over 20 kick returns last season. An extra 20 of these touches wouldn’t kill him, but it would also help Sproles slide up that list of all-time all-purpose yards a little faster while helping the Eagles in the process.
I know Sproles is NFL old and in his last season. I know the Eagles want to manage his health. I know they don’t want to run him into the ground.
But even Sproles on Saturday said it would be exciting for him if the Eagles gave him a chance to get back there and return kicks.
I think they should.