In the Eagles’ running back room, 36-year-old Darren Sproles is affectionately called O.G. (yep, Old Guy) by the young whippersnappers around him.
But when Corey Clement, Jordan Howard, rookie Miles Sanders, and practice-squad member Boston Scott aren’t kidding him about his age, they usually can be found hanging on every word Sproles has to say, even if there usually isn’t a lot of them.
“I listen to him every time he talks," Sanders said. “I sit next to him in meetings. He doesn’t really talk a lot, but when he does, I’m always in his ear, trying to learn from him and get advice."
We’ll get a pretty good feel Sunday for the specifics of Sproles’ on-field role this season beyond returning punts. Two touches a game? Five? More than that?
“Obviously, [he’ll be the] primary punt return [guy],’’ coach Doug Pederson said. “And he’s going to be a nice change of pace on offense. You’ll see him on third downs.
“This is a guy that can still be effective, not only in the run game but also in the passing game on third down, and gives us the ability to empty the backfield from time to time. So we’ll continue to see his role expand that way."
Sproles’ most important role, however, could be off the field, where the Eagles are looking to him to help running backs coach Duce Staley mentor Sanders.
“[Sanders has] somebody he can emulate sitting right there next to him in the meeting room and standing next to him on the field in running back drills," offensive coordinator Mike Groh said Thursday. “He can take that with him to team work and into the games. So, Darren [can help] in a lot of different ways beyond just the playmaking ability."
Sproles has missed 23 games with injuries the last two years. He initially intended to retire after last season, but he began to have a change of heart in the spring. He signed a one-year deal with the Eagles just before the start of training camp.
“I got in that mode where I wasn’t going to come back," Sproles said. “But the thing was, once I made my decision to come back, I was all in."
Sproles didn’t play a single snap in the preseason. Sunday’s game against the Redskins can’t get here soon enough for him.
“I’m ready to get this thing rolling," he said. “I might have to calm myself down a little bit in the pregame. But I’ll be ready to go. The body’s feeling good."
A fourth-round pick by the Chargers out of Kansas State in 2005, Sproles is in his 15th year in the NFL and his sixth with the Eagles. He enters Sunday’s game at the Linc against the Redskins ranked sixth all-time in all-purpose yards (19,520), just 162 behind Hall of Famer Tim Brown, who is in fifth place.
“That means a lot to me," Sproles said. “When I first came into the league, they told me I wasn’t going to make it past one year. To be [No. 6], that’s so special."
The Eagles are expected to use all four of their running backs — Sanders, Sproles, Jordan Howard, and Corey Clement — on Sunday, with Sanders and Howard expected to get the most touches.
As Pederson said, Sproles probably will be used mostly as a third-down back. “It really all depends on the flow of the game," Sproles said. “You never really know."
In all likelihood, this will be Sproles’ final NFL season. But he was in no mood to consider that this week. Right now, he just wants to enjoy the ride.
“I don’t want to get into all of that right now," he said. “My main thing is, I just want to enjoy every week, every practice, every trip we have together. That’s my whole thing."
With the exception of Corey Clement in the Super Bowl, the Eagles’ running backs haven’t been a very significant part of the passing game the last two years.
Last year, just 77 of their 422 completions, or 18.2 percent, were to running backs. The year before, it was 15.5 percent (53 of 341). Those are the two lowest reception percentages by Eagles running backs in the last 17 years.
With Sproles missing 10 games last year with a hamstring injury and 13 the year before with a torn ACL and a fractured forearm, Wendell Smallwood led Eagles running backs in receptions the last two years with 28 last season and just 13 the year before.
That’s a far cry from the 272 passes LeSean McCoy caught from 2009 through 2013, or the 355 passes Brian Westbrook hauled in from 2004 through 2008.
“It’s kind of the way it went the last two years," quarterback Carson Wentz said. Getting the running backs involved in the passing game “is something we always strive to do. But at the same time, we have a lot of weapons. We have a lot of guys out on the edge and inside.
“It’s one of those things where you’re not going to force the issue. You’re going to get them involved when they need to be. It’s all about finding mismatches. We’re going to be able to do that in a lot of different ways this year, including using the running backs."
With Sproles healthy again, and rookie Miles Sanders showing signs that he can be a legitimate pass-catching threat despite his paltry 24 receptions at Penn State last year, don’t be surprised to see Sproles and Sanders be factors in the passing game this season, even with all of the other receiving weapons they have.
“When I see [DeSean Jackson] and Alshon [Jeffery] get out there [in open space], it makes me want to go out there and run some routes," Sanders said. “I’m taking pride in that. Trying to get better with that. Because I know it’s going to take me to the next level."
The Eagles believe Sanders can be the same kind of dual-threat back that both McCoy and Westbrook were — a guy you want to get the ball to in open space.
Wentz has indicated that he’s going to be more willing to use his check-downs this season, which is good news for all of the team’s running backs.