Eagles Notebook: Eagles' Sproles' changing roles

Posted: June 18, 2014

BREAKING NEWS: It seems Darren Sproles is a running back.

This has been a Chip Kelly theme lately, expounded upon yesterday by his offensive coordinator, Pat Shurmur. Kelly and his staff seem to be combating the popular notion that Sproles, who turns 31 on Friday, is most effective as a pass receiver at this point in his career, and that he is a major answer to the question of how the Eagles' receiving corps will respond to the release of DeSean Jackson.

The funny thing is, Kelly helped form the original notion, especially at the March NFL Meetings, when he mused on how defenses might have to rethink man coverage against the Eagles with Sproles lined up in the slot. And after all, Sproles' 53 carries for 220 yards last season with New Orleans were a lot less impressive than his 71 catches for 604 yards.

Did the Sproles-as-a-receiver hype get too big? Are the Birds trying to rein in expectations? Or is Sproles, who will take the field with the rest of the team for a 3-day mandatory minicamp today, uncomfortable with a perceived deemphasis of his running role?

Hard to say, but not hard to say what the current coaching message is on Sproles.

"I think he's an outstanding running back, that's what he is," Shurmur said yesterday, when asked about Sproles. This was the first time since the 2013 season ended that Eagles coaches other than Kelly have been allowed to talk to reporters. "There's a lot of conversation about the fact we brought him in to play receiver. He's played at a very high level for 10 years. He brings outstanding leadership. He's one of our hardest workers. The first training session he went out there and he finishes as well as you see from any player, not to mention he can help us running the ball and catching it. That's a very strong addition for us."

So, that thing Kelly said about matchups in the slot . . .

"He's a running back, so we're going to line him up in the backfield," Shurmur said, before conceding, "There is a portion of our offense where we can be in empty, or we can motion him out."

Even inside linebackers coach Rick Minter was on message when it came to Sproles.

"I think this offense is going to be a good fit for him just as a runner let alone as a receiver, which is what he's known for, as far as being the hard matchup," Minter said.

"As a runner, you start running those plays Chip runs and you start looking back there behind that 300-pound offensive line, you don't even see the guy. Then, all of a sudden, boom, he's squirting out the back door with the ball. And his receiving skills are off the charts. It's very challenging for a linebacking corps to try and defend him."

Maclin's progress

Receivers coach Bob Bicknell indicated that getting Jeremy Maclin all the way back to where he was before last July's ACL tear is an ongoing process.

"There are certain times you see him and everything looks exactly the way I remember it [before the injury]," Bicknell said. "There are times where he'll come out of a break, and it's not being hurt. It's just, you [need to] get your legs underneath you. You have all those different things that are going through an athlete's mind. I'm sure there's some of that that he's going through. But there's a good percentage of the time that he looks exactly the way he looked a year ago before he got hurt."

Henery alive & kicking

So far this spring, kicker Alex Henery's job does not seem seriously endangered by the presence of Carey "Murderleg" Spear, regardless of how fans might feel.

Yesterday, special-teams coordinator Dave Fipp stood up for the incumbent, up to a point.

"He's extremely accurate," Fipp said. "Over the course of his career, he's the fifth-most accurate kicker in the National Football League. But he's got to get better on his kickoffs and long field goals. His kickoffs have not been up to par."

Remembering Gwynn

Eagles tight-ends coach Ted Williams, a Southern California high school baseball star growing up, knew Tony Gwynn, the Hall of Fame San Diego Padre who passed away yesterday from cancer complications.

Williams said his favorite Gwynn story involved Gwynn's famed polite, mannered style. He said at the end of an inning, Gwynn was walking toward the dugout with the ball and several kids yelled for him to throw it to them. One of them, instead of demanding, said, "Excuse me, Mr. Gwynn. Can I get a ball?"

"That was the person he gave the ball to," Williams said. "That was how he lived his life."

Daily News sports writer Paul Domowitch contributed to this report.

On Twitter: @LesBowen

Blog: ph.ly/Eagletarian

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