There will be eight new members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend. Darren Sproles has one more season to bolster his resumé to make a more compelling case to one day join them.
"You think about it," Sproles said. "That's why you play this game. You play this game to win Super Bowls, and when you're done playing, to make it to the Hall of Fame."
It might seem a challenging argument, considering Sproles has never recorded 1,000 rushing yards or 1,000 receiving yards in a season and has never been a team's full-time starting running back. Yet Sproles has the eighth most all-purpose yards in NFL history. Seven players in the top 10 have already made the Hall of Fame. By the end of the year, Sproles could move into the top five and eclipse Hall of Famers Marshall Faulk and Tim Brown.
The problem might be that not all yards are considered equal. Brian Mitchell, who ranks No. 2 on the list, accumulated most of his yards as a returner and is not a Hall of Famer. Sproles has had a more accomplished career on offense than Mitchell, although he wouldn't slight Mitchell – he thinks that return yards should matter when assessing a player's career and that Mitchell should be considered, too. Sproles had 2,792 punt-return yards and seven punt-return touchdowns. He has 8,350 kick-return yards and two scores.
"It's a whole other position," Sproles said. "Kickers, they can go to the Hall of Fame. I feel like all-purpose players should make it, too."
When it took Sproles 10 seasons to finally reach the Pro Bowl, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees said the NFL should have added a position for the Pro Bowl called "all-purpose player" because one position does not encapsulate the production of a player such as Sproles. When not viewed within the confines of a position, his value becomes more apparent.
"If there was an all-purpose-player position, and had been over the last 10 years, he probably would have made eight or nine out of 10 of those," Brees said in January 2015.
Even when disregarding his special-teams production, Sproles is one of 18 players in NFL history with at least 3,000 rushing yards and at least 4,000 receiving yards. Seven players in that group are Hall of Famers. Sproles' 4.9 yards per carry are the best in that entire group, too. And if he can top 344 receiving yards this season, he would be one of only seven players with at least 3,000 rushing yards and 5,000 receiving yards. Four of those players are in the Hall of Fame.
As has been the case throughout Sproles' career, there's always the question of what his statistics could have been had he ever been given the opportunity to be a full-time starter. Sproles has often been overlooked because he's 5-foot-6. He's also never been a player who has sought the spotlight, and a speech impediment has limited his public persona.
"He's someone that, on paper, shouldn't even be in the league," Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "The numbers he's put up and how he's impacted the game in as many ways as he as, I think he's continuing to stack up on that, especially if he has a good year this year. I don't see why he wouldn't be up in there in Hall of Fame talks. I don't know how many returners out there are better than him. The consistency, the production, are one of the things that you can't take away from him. And he's done all that without ever drawing any attention to himself. If he was a flashy player, a guy who likes to talk, he'd probably get more attention."
Inside the locker room, it's hard to find a more respected player. Sproles' work ethic has been praised since he arrived in Philadelphia, with Chip Kelly once calling him the best practice player Kelly had ever seen. Teammates have remained loyal to him wherever he's been, too, with Brees and LaDainian Tomlinson among his most ardent supporters.
"If you really peel back the layers and say, 'What does the Hall of Fame represent?'obviously, he's produced on the field, that's a given," Eagles safety Chris Maragos said. "But he's everything that's right about [the NFL] and what the NFL represents. I've played with a lot of great players, guys who are future Hall of Famers…and to see the way he prepares and the way he does things, it'll be a shame for him not to be in with those guys. Because he's in that class."
In most Hall of Fame debates, players can be compared side-by-side. Quarterback A can be compared with Quarterback B and Quarterback C, with their statistics and career accolades measured against each other. But it's hard to find many players comparable to Sproles.
"That's what legitimizes what you've done, when no one else has done what you've done," Jenkins said. "He's found his own way to impact the game."
Sproles can further bolster his statistics this year, his 14thand final season. Although he's not the starting running back, he'll have a role in the offense and retain his punt-return duties. Sproles could also become the kick returner this season because the NFL's new kickoff-return rules makes it a more wide-open play. Sproles has not returned more than one kickoff in a season since 2013. That will give him more opportunities to accumulate yards. Sproles needs 528 all-purpose yards to move into the top five in NFL history, which was one of Sproles' objectives for returning this season.
"I just feel like, growing up, everyone was saying I was too small to do this, too small to do that," Sproles said. And I feel like if I make it into the top five, that just shows the smaller kids growing up you can do anything."
That would put him past elite company, but it's up for debate whether that would be enough to reach Canton, Ohio. So should Sproles be a Hall of Famer? Don't expect him to state his case.