Rethinking retirement, Darren Sproles mentoring Eagles' young RBs at OTAs

Rethinking retirement, Darren Sproles mentoring Eagles' young RBs at OTAs

As last season was coming to a close, with the Eagles set to miss the playoffs for a third straight year, Darren Sproles sounded resigned to retiring following the 2017 campaign. Now that it's May and the Eagles have a new lease on life, suddenly Sproles isn't quite convinced this year will be his finale in the NFL after all.

"We're gonna see," Sproles said in the locker room after practice Monday. "Right after we make the playoffs, then come back and ask me."

Sproles never said 2017 was definitely going to be his last but admitted there was mounting pressure from his family, specifically his two daughters. Five months later, he's joining the Eagles for organized training activities at the NovaCare Complex, a voluntary offseason program he chose to skip a year ago.

"[The Eagles] wanted me here for the young guys, so they could learn from me," Sproles said. "I said, 'Yeah, that's fine.'"

Sproles came into the league with the San Diego Chargers in 2005 and benefited from mentors such as Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson and two-time Pro Bowler Michael Turner. Now the 13-year veteran wants to "give back" and set a similar example for his Eagles teammates.

“The main thing I tell them — it's really just the more you can do," Sproles said. "You want to show them you can catch punts, you can catch kickoffs, you can play receiver. It's just the more you can do. You'll be in this league a long time."

No doubt, the Eagles are hoping fourth-round draft pick Donnel Pumphrey can shadow Sproles and pick up a thing or two to help speed up his development this offseason. The rookie out of San Diego State is being groomed for a similar role as a "move" player who can take handoffs out of the backfield or line up at wide receiver.

"We want to get him in space," Sproles said. "We get him in space, he can do some things for us."

In addition to Pumphrey, the Eagles also have Wendell Smallwood and Byron Marshall entering their second season, as well as undrafted rookie Corey Clement. There are a lot of eager young minds in the running backs room.

Fortunately, Sproles is not alone. The addition of LeGarrette Blount in May puts the Eagles in the rare position of having two backs on the roster in their thirties who can impart wisdom and share their knowledge with up-and-coming players.

"They ask you a lot of questions, so we try to tell them whatever they want to know," Sproles said. "That's the good thing about having us in the room."

Sproles also believes Blount can play a pivotal role for the Eagles on the field.

"We need to close games out," Sproles said. "You need that pounder to keep the clock moving, keep the chains moving. He can do that."

While Sproles is focused on teaching the young guys and making the playoffs, he's also taken time to reflect on the career. Whether 2017 is his last season or not, the time to call it quits is approaching.

Sproles admits he has a different perspective now and is trying to enjoy his time at OTAs. With his 34th birthday approaching on June 20 and this being the final year of his contract with the Eagles, he also has goals on how he wants to walk away from the game.

"You don't want to be forced out," Sproles said. "You want to leave on your own terms.

“Once you get over 30 in this league, they try to kick you out.”

So far, the Eagles have shown no desire to give Sproles the boot. In fact, his 94 carries in 2016 were a career high, and he finished with 865 total yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns. The three-time Pro Bowl selection averaged 13.2 yards per punt return as well.

Of course, Sproles is essentially training his potential replacement with the Eagles in Pumphrey. As long as Sproles continues to produce at that clip, he should have no problem finding work in the NFL, regardless of age.

Tackling new helmet rule a challenge for Jim Schwartz, Eagles

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Tackling new helmet rule a challenge for Jim Schwartz, Eagles

Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is concerned enough about the NFL's new rule banning tacklers from lowering their head to initiate contact that he held a defensive meeting Monday specifically so his guys could study film of exactly how the league is calling the new rule.

Through two preseason weekends, the Eagles have been cited a league-high five times for personal fouls for lowering the head.

“The instructions we’ve given guys is, try not to lower your head and try to take your head out of it, and I think our guys are trying to do that,” Schwartz said.

“I can confidently say we don’t have any guys that are trying to play outside the bounds. We don’t have any guys that are head hunting, that are being selfish. They’re trying to play within the rules.

“I think you can see Nigel (Bradham’s) play, he’s trying to get his head out. I think even Rodney (McLeod’s) play, he’s trying to get his head across and get it out. The problem is they’re dealing with world-class athletes who are moving targets. A little bit easier said than done. 

“And those fouls have hurt us in those first couple preseason games and we’ve got to get to a point where they don’t hurt us in the regular season.”

Cornerback Sidney Jones was called for a lowering-the-head penalty on Steelers receiver Damoun Patterson in the preseason opener, and tight end Richard Rodgers was also cited in the opener for an illegal hit on Justin Thomas on a punt return.

On Thursday night, McLeod was called for a hit on running back James White, Bradham was cited for a hit on receiver Julian Edelman and safety Jeremy Reaves was penalized for a hit on running back Mike Gillislee.

“It’s going to be very important work over the next couple weeks, not just learning from our own mistakes but learning from other teams,” Schwartz said.

“There’s some other good feedback. We get clips from the league that show not just penalties that were called but penalties that should have been called. So there is a learning process.”

Eagles veteran defensive end Brandon Graham said it’s going to be tough to eliminate these penalties simply because the game moves so fast, and even if your intention is to use perfect form tackling, it doesn’t always end up that way.

“It’s tough because sometimes the runner’s ducking his head just as much as you’re ducking,” he said. “But they just don’t want to see the crown of your head hitting his crown or hitting his facemask.

“Just really try to keep your eyes up. You’re going to get ran over sometimes. Hey, you’re going to get ran over. But some people do like to use the crown of their head and it’s just to protect them because you don’t want to be paralyzed from hitting someone the wrong way. 

"So I try to keep my face up and hit with my facemask and this will force people to start doing stuff like that.”

One challenge Schwartz is getting his guys to play hard, fast and aggressive without thinking about how they’re tackling.

“You want to play fast,” he said. “You want to play confidently on the field. But any time there’s something new, there is going to be an adjustment. 

“It’s a difficult thing. We're trying our best to work through it, but it does add a layer of difficulty to what we're trying to do.”

According to penalty stats on NFLgsis, an official league statistical web site, there have been 48 lowering-the-head penalties called in 32 preseason games or 1½ per game.

Eight of the 32 teams haven’t been cited at all. The Eagles and Titans have been called a league-high five times each.

“It’s real sensitive right now, but as professionals, we’re going to adjust,” Graham said.

“They want to make it an emphasis in preseason, and I’m happy it didn’t cost us a real game. We’ve just got to continue to keep our head out of things and I think we’ll make that adjustment."

More on the Eagles

Eagle Eye: Bet your money Wentz starts vs Falcons

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Eagle Eye: Bet your money Wentz starts vs Falcons

On this edition of Eagle Eye, Derrick Gunn and Barrett Brooks discuss Carson Wentz participating in 11-on-11's. Why Barrett would put money on him starting the regular season opener. Brandon Graham is back at practice and Gunner got a chance to talk to him recently. Also, the Redskins sign Adrian Peterson and the guys think it's a great fit for the veteran running back.

1:00 - Gunner and Barrett's weekend update.
4:30 - Carson Wentz is back on 11-on-11's. Why it's a significant step.
9:30 - Brandon Graham is back practicing. Gunner had a chance to talk with him.
13:00 - Adrian Peterson signs with the Redskins.

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