Eagles coach Chip Kelly has spent a lot of time during the offseason and preseason arguing that Sproles, whom the team traded for in March, is a running back. That's all. A running back. Really, though, that's not all. It's not even the primary reason the Eagles wanted Sproles. They wanted him to be a receiver out of the backfield, to play a similar role to the one he flourished in over his previous three seasons, with the New Orleans Saints.
It's no wonder why. Even now at 31 years old, Sproles remains one of the NFL's fastest and most elusive players. He had 232 receptions and 16 receiving touchdowns with the Saints, and the Eagles faced so much man-to-man coverage from opposing defenses last season that they're banking that Sproles' and LeSean McCoy's speed and pass-catching abilities will counteract that strategy this season.
"God bless them - he is hard to cover out of the backfield," said Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis, who had to game-plan for Sproles ahead of the Eagles' playoff loss to the Saints in January. "You have to be very aware as a defensive signal caller who is matched up in your man coverages on him and Shady, for that matter. Those are two great space athletes who are difficult to cover. If you've got linebackers or even safeties, you'd better make sure they're quick because those guys are so shifty, and it's a hard matchup."
That McCoy and Sproles should bring dynamism to the Eagles' offense - enough, the organization has to hope, to make up for the absence of DeSean Jackson - is obvious. But a key factor that gets overlooked when assessing the value of McCoy and Sproles is each one's reliability. McCoy has 1,421 touches over his career; he has fumbled just 10 times. Sproles has 16 fumbles over 1,338 touches, but 523 of those were kickoff- and punt-returns - situations that present a higher risk for losing the ball.
Last year, the scouting and statistical firm Pro Football Focus ranked Sproles as the NFL's best receiving running back, in large part because of his sure-handedness. He caught 71 passes for the Saints, his fewest in any season with them, but in some respects, he had never performed better for them. He was targeted on pass plays 84 times, which ranked third among NFL running backs. None of those targets resulted in Sproles' dropping the pass, his fumbling the ball, or the Saints' throwing an interception. No other back with at least 40 targets went mistake-free in each of those categories.
Sproles is just 5-foot-6 and 181 pounds - in the lunch line Monday, he disappeared behind rookie linebacker Marcus Smith - and doesn't have particularly large hands. So, he was asked, what's his secret?
He leaned toward the wall and hit it with his fist, as if he were knocking wood.
"You've just got to see [the ball] coming off," he said. "You've just got to see it. Use your eyes, let it hit your hands first, and then run with it."
There's more to it than fundamentals and luck, of course.
"Not only is he faster and quicker than most people on the field, he knows exactly what the defensive coverage is. He knows protections," Davis said. "I mean, this is a smart man and a great football player."
And Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, who was Sproles' teammate for three years in New Orleans, said that Sproles "has a Napoleon complex. He's, like, the smallest guy on the team, and he hates being the smallest guy on the team."
Sometimes, though, it's the little details that matter most. So for the Eagles and Darren Sproles, it might just come down to this: If a man's going to put that much effort and concentration into spooning himself a helping of fast food, don't you want him handling the football as often as possible?