One of the goals of the 2013 offseason was to get Nick Foles a deeper cast of pass catchers to throw to. One step in this was the acquisition of Darren Sproles, giving the team depth out of the backfield in the passing game. Sproles’ dual threat ability as a receiver and runner fits perfectly into Chip Kelly’s offense, but he does however come with a concern. Time is cruel to NFL players, and even crueler to running backs. As a running back in his 30s, how soon will Sproles inevitable decline hit?
We can get an idea by looking at similar players to Sproles. There aren’t many, he is a unique player. Sproles' career high in rushes is 93, in 2009 with the Chargers, in part because LaDainian Tomlinson was injured for two games. In his entire career he’s carried the ball 10+ times in a game only nine times, two of those times were when Tomlinson was out, and has had 20+ carries only twice. So he has relatively low wear and tear, which is encouraging. On the other hand, he is a tiny player, and small players have durability issues. And Sproles has been fortunate to be in situations where he wasn't needed to run much. In San Diego he played behind a great running back in Tomlinson and with outstanding change of pace backs in Michael Turner and Mike Tolbert. In New Orleans he was part of a RB committee, everyone got touches but nobody dominated the ball, he was relied on primarily as a pass catcher and used sparingly as a runner. His situation with the Eagles will be a blend of both stays: like in San Diego he will be behind a great running back and with a change of pace backup in Chris Polk, and like in New Orleans he will be a pass catcher first, running back a distant second.
So this bodes well for staving off a decline. We can look at players with similar production and should be able to notice a trend. Using PRF’s Season Finder, we find 66 seasons accrued by 42 running backs that had fewer than 100 rushes and at least 32 catches. Admittedly these are arbitrary end points, it’s slightly more carries than Sproles has ever had, and significantly less catches than he should have, an average of two a game. But football statistics are chock full of small sample sizes, so in order to get the best SSS we can, we need to cast the biggest net possible first, then narrow it down by eliminating players who have completely different careers than Sproles.
First we can eliminate the players who only show up once because it was the last year of their careers: Marshall Faulk, MacArthur Lane, Terry Metcalf, Tony Paige, Harry Sydney and Joe Washington. Then there are traditional blocking fullbacks that for a season or two caught a couple of passes a game, generally as dump offs: Obafemi Ayanbadejo, Bob Christian, Aaron Craver, William Henderson Daryl Johnston, Buford McGee, Cory Schlesinger and Jerald Sowell.
Next there are players who were not previously or subsequently noted pass catchers, the threshold of which I have arbitrarily determined to be 40 catches in a season. These players show up because of a peak reception year due to their QB having next to no options to throw to: Ronnie Brown, Charles Evans, Todd McNair, Brian Mitchell, Joe Morrison, Darrin Nelson, and Aaron Stecker.
Finally, there are running backs who ran the ball much more earlier in their careers, so they piled up the mileage on their bodies. When their ability to run the ball effectively ended their ability to haul in a few catches a game kept them in the game for an additional season. Usually the following year they offered no value at all, and then were out of the league. We can eliminate Gary Anderson, Calvin Hill, Tony Nathan, Greg Pruitt, Chester Taylor, LaDanian Tomlinson, Chris Warren, James Wilder, and John Williams.
This leaves us with 12 players who by the age of 30 had settled into a clear cut role of pass catcher out of the backfield who occasionally ran to keep defenses honest. This group is a mix of backup/rotational running backs and pass catching fullbacks, the former of which describes Sproles’ career and intended usage this year. Sproles is 31 and is under contract through his age 33 season, though that season he carries only $1M in dead money vs a cap savings of $3.5M. So we’ll look at these players’ age 30-33 seasons to see if we can notice a trend. Immediately we can, ten of these 12 players have multiple seasons that qualify. But let’s take a closer look at who they are, which will help us understand why they dropped off.
Kimble Anders - A Pro Bowl fullback, Anders’ career ended with 495 carries and 369 catches over 10 years. Darren Sproles has only played seven years, but has amassed a similar total: 437 carries and 378 catches. Anders saw his averages steadily decline and in his age 33 season missed 14 games. He played one more season, barely catching the ball.
Richie Anderson - Also a Pro Bowl fullback. Unlike Anders, his average increased as he got older, his age 32 season he was the leading pass catcher for the Cowboys in the magical pixie dust season of Quincy Carter’s career. His number of catches severely dropped off the next year, partly because he missed four games in what would be his last season, and partly because Jason Witten emerged as a top tight end and Keyshawn Johnson was brought in.
Keith Byars - A bit of an outlier here as he was also used as a tight end at times, Byars averaged 145 carries a year in his first four years in the league with the Eagles, and then in Miami was a pass catching fullback. His production declined every year.
Larry Centers - "Pass catching fullback" is quite the niche, but Larry Centers was the greatest of them all. In 1995 he caught 101 passes, in 1996 he caught 99. He is 26th all time in receptions, ahead of Hall of Famers Steve Largent, Shannon Sharpe, James Lofton, and Michael Irvin to name a few. Illustrating his excellence, one of his best seasons came at age 33. He hung around for a couple of seasons after that.
Tony Galbreath - A dual threat running back, Galbreath was 6th in the league in receptions his rookie year in 1976 and 2nd in 1978. After four years of regular but ineffective running, he became a pass catcher and blocker who sometimes ran. His 33 catch season was 2nd most on the 1986 Giants. He retired after his age 33 season, at the time he held the record for receptions by a running back.
Kevin Faulk - One of Bill Belichick’s trusted Swiss Army Knife players, Faulk was the epitome of the "third down back" due to his abilities as a pass catcher and pass blocker. He had four solid years receiving, his 37 reception age 33 season was good enough for third on the Patriots. He hung around for a couple of seasons but did nothing.
Ronnie Harmon - Perhaps the most similar player to Sproles. At age 28 he caught 79 passes and went to the Pro Bowl, at age 29 he caught 73. In his 30s he caught fewer passes but was no less effective when he did. At age 33 he played 12 games for two teams, then was out of the league.
Don McCauley - After a couple of ineffective seasons as the starter, McCauley settled into the role of part time running back, part time fullback, full time backup and played 11 years, all for the Colts. His receptions dropped in his age 31 and 32 seasons in part because the Colts threw the ball less. In a 2009 interview with the Baltimore Sun he offered an encouraging insight:
"Knees and hips? They’re fine," he said. "Playing part-time kept me healthy."
Imagine what he could have done with Sports Science™.
Dave Meggett - A Pro Bowl punt returner, Meggett’s rushing totals are a pretty good match with Sproles, though he caught the ball less. His effectiveness dropped off a cliff after age 30, then his life. In 2034 he will be released from prison.
Preston Pearson - Like Faulk he was the epitome of the "third down back" for his all around abilities. He returned kicks early in his career, but was never much of a pass catcher, his age 32 and 33 seasons were his only standout ones. He hung around for two more seasons.
Michael Pittman - A pretty good dual threat running back for a few seasons, Pittman had a couple of 70+ catch seasons but was unable to stay healthy after age 31.
Tom Rathman - Though he wasn’t the first, Rathman was the poster boy for West Coast fullbacks, right down to the eye black, blending a respectable short yardage running game and receiving ability. Teaming with all-everything and fellow Nebraska Cornhusker Roger Craig, he gave the mid to late 80s 49ers toughness with Craig’s grace. In 1989 he caught 73 passes, only 9 fewer than teammate Jerry Rice. Injured for half his age 31 season, after his age 32 season as another in a long line of Al Davis’ "I saw this guy make a play in the Super Bowl" free agent signings, he retired.
We see a few trends here. As already noted, most showed up multiple times. While there were fluctuations from player to player, taken as a whole, there was no drop off in production.
So what can we expect from Sproles? Because of the depth of pass catchers the Eagles have, he will probably catch fewer passes than he did in New Orleans, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he didn’t. In 2012 he played in 40.1% of Saints offensive snaps, in 2013 31.7%, and caught 75 and 71 passes, respectively. The Eagles didn’t add him to play in 20% of plays, so the opportunities could still be there. A 70+ catch season is likely optimistic, but a 50+ catch season seems reasonable for this and next year. He may be less effective, but history suggests he should continue to be the same player he was in New Orleans. Also consider this: LeSean McCoy’s receiving history.
Under Chip Kelly, he might actually be better.