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Eagles' Darren Sproles could be nearing the end

The diminutive but durable runner back is expected to play a lesser role in a crowded back field.

During offseason training in recent months, Sproles reminded himself to enjoy these moments. It might be because it's his last time preparing for an NFL season - although Sproles remained coy when asked if he's certain.

"We're going to see," Sproles said. "Right after we make the playoffs, come back and ask me."

Sproles maintains a key role in the Eagles' offense. He totaled the most carries of his NFL career last season and will join LeGarrette Blount, Wendell Smallwood, and Donnell Pumphrey in a running back committee in 2017. The Eagles invested a fourth-round pick in the 5-foot-8, 176-pound Pumphrey, who has been compared to Sproles and is expected to be Sproles' eventual replacement.

Sproles already has tried to help mentor Pumphrey. He skipped organized team activities last spring to spend time with his family. The Eagles asked him to attend this year so the young running backs can learn from him. He agreed, attending the first week and this week. He spent last week with his family. Sproles noted how valuable he and Blount can be to Pumphrey and Smallwood. It's rare for a team to have one running back in his 30s. The Eagles have two.

But the addition of Blount will also help a running back group that relied on Sproles carrying the ball last season. Sproles finished with 94 carries for 438 yards. That topped his 2009 mark of 93 carries, and it was the second-most rushing yards he's accumulated in a season. But at 5-foot-6 and 190 pounds, he knows that the Eagles can use a big back to complement him. That's where Blount comes in.

"I feel like last year we lost games . . . because we didn't close games out," Sproles said. "You need that pounder to keep the clock moving, keep the chains moving."

With Blount, Smallwood, and Pumphrey, Sproles might not get the same rushing opportunities this season. But his playing time could remain similar to the 45 percent of the offensive snaps he logged in 2016. Sproles said if he can total 12-15 touches per games, that will suffice.

"You know I want to" carry the ball, Sproles said. "We've got Blount now. We've got Smallwood still. Whatever my role is, it's probably going to be more [catching] out of the backfield stuff. I'm fine with that."

Sproles has topped 50 catches in six of the last seven years, including 52 catches for 427 yards last season. The Eagles like to create mismatches with Sproles against a linebacker and find ways to use him in space.

They've already tried to use Pumphrey that way during OTAs, even though Pumphrey had more carries than any player in college football during the last four years. Offensive coordinator Frank Reich said the Eagles want to see how productive Pumphrey can be as a pass catcher, and they're already encouraged by his catching ability and route-running.

"We get him in space, he can do some things for us," Sproles said. "He can do it. The only thing is, you really have to get used to his role. He's so used to getting the ball. . . But the thing is, he's going to be more fresh."

Sproles' main advice to Pumphrey was that the more Pumphrey can do, the better. If he can return punts, kickoffs, and play receiver, then he can "be in the league for a long time."

But not all small running backs are the same. Pumphrey is 5-foot-8 and 176 pounds, lacking Sproles' strength. Sproles said that muscle is important in the NFL. He's confident that Pumphrey can add that with age – especially with the Eagles' strength staff – but it will be crucial for Pumphrey's longevity.

"In this league, you've got to have a little bit because you can't make the whole team miss," Sproles said." You've got to have a little weight to keep you healthy. When he gets older, he'll put the weight on. He's a little baby now, though."

While he develops, Pumphrey has a good model to watch. Sproles remains a key player for the Eagles' offense, but this season might be his curtain call. That could be why he's reminded himself to enjoy it.

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