Eagles' Sproles more receiver than running back this year
If you blinked, you may have missed Darren Sproles this summer. The Eagles kept the 33-year-old running back on ice for most of the preseason. Despite being perfectly healthy, he played a total of 18 preseason snaps. Didn't have a single rushing attempt. Didn't return a single punt. Caught four passes for 16 yards.
If you blinked, you may have missed Darren Sproles this summer.
The Eagles kept the 33-year-old running back on ice for most of the preseason. Despite being perfectly healthy, he played a total of 18 preseason snaps. Didn't have a single rushing attempt. Didn't return a single punt. Caught four passes for 16 yards.
"You always want to get out there with your teammates," Sproles said Thursday. "But they had a plan for me in the preseason."
That plan was to make absolutely certain that Sproles made it to the 2016 starting line Sunday in one piece. And he has.
He is going to be an important part of Doug Pederson's offense, though not necessarily as a runner. Oh, he'll get a few carries here and there, many of them probably on jet sweeps. But don't look for him to come anywhere close to last season's 83 carries. Ryan Mathews and Kenjon Barner will handle the ball-carrying load. Sproles' primary role this season will be as a receiver.
In his three seasons with the Saints (2011-13), Sproles caught 232 passes, the most by any running back in the league during that period.
When Chip Kelly acquired him for the discount price of a fifth-round draft pick before the 2014 season, it was assumed he would use Sproles the same way Sean Payton did.
But Sproles caught just 40 passes his first season with the Eagles and 55 last year. Sproles' 83 carries last season were the third most of his career. His 3.8-yard-per-carry average was the second lowest.
Look for Sproles to line up all over the formation and catch lots of screens and slants and underneath crosses, and maximize his ability in space against linebackers and safeties.
"They're playing to my strengths," Sproles said. "I really like this offense. We've got a lot of plays. That's a good thing."
The question seemed pretty simple, but the answer was not.
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was asked Thursday whether linebacker Mychal Kendricks' role is going to change any.
This is what Schwartz said: "Well, everybody's role is sort of fluid, depending on how they are playing, depending on injuries at other positions, depending on the opponent. What you're asked to do one week is not necessarily what you're going to be asked to do every week because we're going to tailor a (game) plan for a specific opponent."
With veteran middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch slowly but surely getting back into playing shape, Schwartz has been rotating linebackers in practice, occasionally moving starter Jordan Hicks out of the MIKE spot and over to WILL, which happens to be Kendricks' spot, and SAM, which is manned by Nigel Bradham.
"Just making sure I know all the positions just in case something happens or whether we want to roll 'Tully' (into the middle) or just switch up the rotation (because) somebody needs a blow," Hicks said Thursday. "You never know during the course of a game, the course of a season, what might happen. That's really the mindset behind it and I'm rolling with it."
It's unclear whether Kendricks also is rolling with it. He hasn't spoken to the media since the third preseason game against Indianapolis, when he was the only starter to play in the fourth quarter of that game. He also was the only starter to play in the final preseason game last week against the Jets.
Both Schwartz and head coach Doug Pederson said Kendricks needed the extra reps after missing nearly three weeks with a hamstring injury they thought would keep him out for only one.
Kendricks is one of the most athletic linebackers in the league. Two years ago, I was impressed enough by his play to put him on my All-Pro ballot.
Then, last year, after signing a four-year, $29 million contract extension, he laid an egg. Spent the year playing in a fog.
Missed three games and parts of two others with a hamstring injury. Was a liability in coverage and was one of the major culprits on the league's worst run defense.
During the offseason, he blamed a lot of his struggles on the fact that the rotation defensive coordinator Billy Davis used at inside linebacker prevented him from getting into a rhythm.
When that was mentioned to Schwartz Thursday, he took a deep breath before answering.
"Yeah, I wasn't here last year, so I really don't know how that played out," he said. "But I view using guys with their particular talents as a positive. I view keeping guys fresh over the course of a season and over the course of a game as a positive.
"It's up to the players to perform."
Returns vs. touchbacks
Five years ago, concerned about the large number of concussions suffered by players on kickoffs, the NFL moved kickoffs from the 30- to the 35-yard line, hoping to dramatically increase the number of touchbacks and reduce the number of returns. The strategy worked.
In 2010, just one team in the league had a touchback rate on kickoffs higher than 40 percent. Last year, 29 of the league's 32 teams were above 40 percent.
But the league still wasn't happy. So, in March, it instituted a one-year rule moving the drive-start on touchbacks from the 20- to the 25-yard line.
The thinking was that, by adding 5 yards to touchbacks, it would discourage returners from bringing the ball out of the end zone and decrease the number of kickoff returns even more.
Many of the league's coaches, including special-teams coordinators, warned that the new rule likely was going to have the opposite effect of the one intended.
With touchbacks now coming out to the 25, kicking teams would be more inclined to go with shorter, higher kicks that would increase the frequency of returns, not decrease them, the coaches said.
During the preseason, teams experimented with both to try to get a feel for what they want to do in the regular season.
"The whole thing is going to be interesting," Eagles special-teams coordinator Dave Fipp said. "At the end of the day, the return team is going to see a lot of different kicks and a lot more variety than they've ever seen.
"There's going to be some returnable balls and there's going to be some touchbacks. I would guess that there's going to be more returns than there have been in the past. But I don't think the number is going to be as high as people are predicting.
"I still think it comes down to who you are, who they are, what's the situation in the game, distance, hang time, all of those kinds of things.
"There's definitely more to the whole play than there was. It should be exciting to some degree because you have to be ready for a bunch of different things."
FIGURING THE EAGLES
* The Eagles haven't had a top-10 red-zone offense since their Super Bowl season in 2004. They converted 62.3 percent of their red-zone opportunities into touchdowns that year, the fourth best mark in the league. Since then, their highest red-zone rate was 55.8 percent last year when they finished 15th. A look at the Eagles' red-zone rankings since'04:
Red Zone NFL
Year Pct. Rank
2015. . . 55.8 15th
2014. . . 49.1 23rd
2013. . . 53.2 13th
2012. . . 44.0 28th
2011. . . 51.5 14th
2010. . . 52.5 16th
2009. . . 49.1 21st
2008. . . 47.9 25th
2007. . . 45.1 25th
2006. . . 54.0 12th
2005. . . 53.7 12th
2004. . . 62.3 4th
* Last season, the Eagles' offense, which finished 15th overall in third-down efficiency (39.6%), had the best success rate in the league on third downs of 3 yards or less (71.0), but the fifth lowest on third downs of 5 yards or more (26.4). A look at the 11 teams with the worst third-down success rates with 5 or more yards to go:
Team Pct. W- L
49ers. . . 20.4 5-11
Rams. . . 22.6 7-9
Dolphins. . . 23.5 6-10
Lions. . . 24.6 7-9
Eagles. . . 26.4 7-9
Cowboys. . . 27.5 4-12
Texans. . . 28.0 9-7
Bills. . . 28.3 8-8
Broncos. . . 28.5 12-4
Giants. . . 28.7 6-10
Ravens. . . 28.7 5-11
* The Eagles are one of 12 teams that currently are carrying only two quarterbacks on their 53-man roster. The other 11: Arizona, Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, Minnesota, New England, New Orleans, San Diego and Seattle.
* Carson Wentz is one of three rookie quarterbacks who will be starting in Week 1. The others are the Cowboys' Dak Prescott and the Broncos' Trevor Siemian. This is the ninth straight year that at least one rookie QB is starting in Week 1.
* The Eagles have the seventh-easiest schedule in the league based on opponent records in 2015. The Eagles' 16 opponents were 120-136 (.469) last season. The six teams with supposedly easier schedules: Packers (.457), Giants (.461), Bears (.461),
Lions (.465), Cowboys (.465) and Bengals (.465).
FROM THE LIP
* "To say I'm disappointed in the hiring of Skip Bayless would be an enormous understatement. Clearly, (Fox Sports president of national networks) Jamie Horowitz and I have a difference of opinion when it comes to building a successful organization. I believe success is achieved by acquiring and developing talented, respected and credible individuals, none of which applies to Skip Bayless." - Fox football analyst Troy Aikman on his network's hiring of Bayless, who wrote a book about the Cowboys in the late '90s in which he suggested that the Hall of Fame quarterback was gay
* "I'm a better player than I was last year. I feel like I keep progressing. I don't know what the stats are going to be, but I'm going to be a better player this year than I was last year. I know that." - Jets QB Ryan Fitzpatrick
* "We don't care what happened in Cleveland, to be quite honest with you. We're not asking a bunch of questions in that regard. We simply acquired a young cornerback that another team didn't want or need, and we're putting him in our environment and starting the process of going to work on a day-to-day basis and see where that leads us." - Steelers coach Mike Tomlin on CB Justin Gilbert, the 2014 first-round pick acquired from the Browns
BY THE NUMBERS
* Since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, just 134 of the 555 teams that have lost in Week 1 have made the playoffs.
* Nineteen of the 32 quarterbacks who will start this week are first-round picks, including seven who were the first overall pick. Just seven were not a top-75 pick: Tyrod Taylor (Bills), Dak Prescott (Cowboys), Trevor Siemian (Broncos), Case Keenum (Rams), Ryan Fitzpatrick (Jets), Russell Wilson (Seahawks) and Kirk Cousins (Redskins).
* Vikings running back Adrian Peterson has 854 rushing yards in nine career season openers. He needs 146 yards to become the fifth player in history with 1,000 rushing yards in Week 1 games. The four who have done it: Emmitt Smith (1,247), Walter Payton (1,067), Edgerrin James (1,062) and Jim Brown (1,043).
* Nine teams scored at least 400 points last season. The combined winning percentage of those nine teams was .667. Seven made the playoffs.
THIS AND THAT
Former Eagles offensive line coach Howard Mudd has a terrific new book out called "The View From The O-Line," which I highly recommend. It's funny and informative and gives you incredible insight into what Mudd calls "the least understood but most intriguing position in the game."
He used nearly two dozen current and former offensive linemen, as well as a former general manager (Bill Polian) to help him tell his story.
"I'm kind of the moderator in the book, but it's not expressly about me," Mudd said. "There's a whole variety of people that are in it. We originally wanted to talk about the history, starting with my playing time, and then, coaching and what we do. But who we are became more prominent in this thing than what we do."
One of my favorite Mudd lines from the book: "Few things piss me off as much as the term 'skill position.' It suggests the only players possessing skill are quarterbacks, receivers, and running backs. What witless (bleep) coined that label? Had to be someone who didn't know (bleep) from wet cement. And certainly someone who never played on the offensive line."
I recently spent nearly an hour on the phone with the 74-year-old Mudd, who is living in Seattle. One of the people we talked about was 2011 draft bust Danny Watkins.
"After the first year I coached that whole group, I asked them to write a report on themselves," Mudd said. "I told them when we see each other in March, I want you to have a written report. It could be 10 sentences, I don't care. I just want you to evaluate yourself. Each guy did. Danny's could've been an outline for a master's thesis. His problem had nothing to do with not being smart. He just did really dumb things (on the field). When I watched the tape of him at Baylor, he could really play. I never interviewed him before the draft. Howie (Roseman) and I would talk and ask each other, why did we not know that this guy didn't really want to play football? That he wanted to be a fireman?"
* Every year, the NFL communications department asks the league's new head coaches to fill out a questionnaire which runs in its media information guide. One look at just a few of the contrasting answers of Doug Pederson and Chip Kelly and you realize Jeff Lurie definitely succeeded in getting the anti-Chip:
Pederson: The entire Jason Bourne series
Kelly: The Shawshank Redemption
Pederson: Grilled salmon
FAVORITE OTHER SPORT
Kelly: Women's soccer
MOST OVERRATED ASPECT OF FOOTBALL
Pederson: There isn't any.
Kelly: The circus that surrounds the NFL draft.
ONE THING THAT SHOULD NEVER CHANGE ABOUT NFL FOOTBALL
Pederson: Monday Night Football
Kelly: Games should only be played on Sundays.
@Pdomo Blog: philly.com/Eaglesblog