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Monday, March 10, 2014
Five thoughts: Darren Sproles

By John Keim

With running back Darren Sproles done in New Orleans (his release has not yet hit the transactions wire), it led to another round of "should the Redskins pursue" questions via Twitter. So, should they go after Sproles? Well, I have a few thoughts. As always.

Darren Sproles
Running back Darren Sproles had 71 receptions for 604 yards last season, his eighth in the NFL.
1. Yes, I would be interested in signing Sproles if I were the Washington Redskins. But you need to know exactly what you’re getting. Do not expect the Sproles from 2011, when he set an NFL record with 2,696 all-purpose yards for the Saints and was one of the most dynamic players in the NFL. That is not who he was last season. In 2013, Sproles had 1,273 all-purpose yards. He also will not necessarily solve the issues at returner. In five of the past six years he’s averaged 8.0 yards or less on punt returns. Last season he averaged 21.3 yards on 12 kick returns (though he has a 25.3 career average and was at 26.8 in 2012). He’s a limited role guy, so you can’t pay a lot for him. My guess is the Redskins knew he would be getting released just by analyzing other teams' cap numbers; I haven’t heard his name mentioned, so perhaps they made up their minds already. He's 30, and I wouldn't trust a move on anything other than a smaller deal. You just don't give a good chunk to players over 30. Not good business.

2. That said, it doesn't take long to figure out he can still play. Just for kicks (well, for research, too), I watched some of his games last season. Sproles remains an effective back, able to make defenders miss in the open field with a hard juke or quick shake. He sets up blockers well in the open field because he can show inside, then quickly cut outside.

3. Also, and this is big: In two of the three games I watched, I saw the opposing defense (Miami, Philadephia) send two defenders his way on a route several times. And that left gaps in the defense that benefited, for example, tight end Jimmy Graham. It gave quarterback Drew Brees enough of a window to exploit, and it occurred simply because Sproles was sent to the flat. Also, Brees scrambled up the middle on occasion because linebackers vacated areas to double Sproles. They couldn't do that with a quarterback such as Robert Griffin III, who obviously looks to run more. Again, I'm not saying Sproles is the best and they must sign him. But am I interested because he could help them? Absolutely -- and for the right price, he's a good weapon. Sproles is a matchup headache capable of running good routes from multiple spots.

4. Yes, Jay Gruden had Giovani Bernard in Cincinnati as a big weapon. Sproles could fill that role here. But keep in mind that Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton's lack of arm strength -- especially compared to Griffin's -- almost required that the Bengals have a guy like Bernard, someone Dalton could easily dump the ball to. Sproles would be a good check-down guy for Griffin, but if they sign another receiver, the plan is to get the ball downfield more. That is likely the plan, anyway; I know the coaches think Jordan Reed will be an excellent target on deeper throws. That would lessen the desire for a guy like Sproles, though Sproles would still be a weapon. It’s not as if Brees was just a check-down guy.

5. If the Redskins somehow pursued Sproles -- and I don’t know that they will -- it should not mean the end of Roy Helu. As a running back, Sproles works best in a spread formation when he can hit gaps up the middle against, say, a five-man box. If something happened to starting running back Alfred Morris, I would not want Sproles as the full-time guy. Nor would the Redskins. The Saints were able to incorporate three backs into their offense, and I think the Redskins could as well. Sproles would replace a guy like Chris Thompson.