The questions are as necessary and regular as they are absurd.
“Hey, who’s going to replace Darren Sproles? Yeah, Darren Sproles — the dude who’s sixth in all-purpose yards in the history of the NFL? Who replaces his production?”
Well, nobody of course. Nobody can step into Sproles shoes, as Sproles is a special player with an irregular skill set (not to mention an irregular frame). His unique strengths and usage make him a mismatch nightmare; a focal point on defensive game plans; and an elite producer.
Sproles, when healthy in Doug Pederson’s offense, was effective — and the entire unit benefitted from his play. An ideal committee back because of his receiving chops, veteran discipline in pass protection, and ability to flex out wide, Sproles’ role is indeed empty — but it has been for a while now.
Sproles only played 3 games in 2017, as Corey Clement emerged into the Eagles preferred 3rd down back; and again, Sproles only played 8 games in 2018, and...well, nobody really emerged at all.
So the vacuum is there, and yes, someone needs to step into those touches. But to expect someone to replace Sproles’ ability on screens, on draws, on option routes, on tosses, and on returns is unrealistic.
Now that I’ve appropriately talked myself down, made the necessary concessions, posted all the neon warning signs...Boston Scott is ready to step into Darren Sproles’ shoes.
Scott made the most offseason of headlines this week, as his name was quick out of Doug Pederson’s mouth answered that fateful Sproles question:
DOUG PEDERSON: We have a player [RB] Boston Scott, who’s been on our roster since the end of last season or halfway through [last season]. He’s a guy that can kind of fill a Darren Sproles [role]. He’s in that same body type and same quickness. We’re working him in a couple of different situations as a runner, as a punt returner, and just kind of getting a feel for him because he wasn’t a guy we initially brought onto our team early.
Of course, there’s other guys, but he’s kind of been the one that, if you say you’re going to try to replace Darren, which you really can’t, he would be the guy that has kind of taken that role over right now.
Doug agrees: you can’t really replace Darren, but also, we hope Boston Scott replaces Darren.
Pederson brought up the body type, which is an important note: as I said above, part of Sproles’ appeal and production is his size. Famously able to hide behind bigger offensive linemen at a towering 5’6, Sproles is short but he isn’t small. Thickly wrapped at 190+ pounds, the density of Sproles’ frame — particularly his lower half — allow him to withstand body blows to his torso and above. Because he’s so compact, he can change direction more easily and at more drastic angles: there’s less weight, further away from the ground, to stop and start again.
We know this empirically. We’ve seen Sproles burrow his way through two tackles and joystick around another three on multiple occasions.
Scott brings the same frame, and the same advantages accordingly. Even thicker (thiccer?) than Sproles at 203 pounds, Scott has dynamic change-of-direction skills, great contact balance, and tackle-breaking power considering his natural leverage.
Don’t believe me?
From a body type perspective, there are a lot of similarities. From a play style perspective, there are a lot of similarities as well — and that’s important. Sproles’ body type, as we’ve discussed, informs and inspires his play style. His physical traits match his on-field skills. The same can be said of Scott — he’s 5’6 and 203 pounds, lightning quick and surprisingly powerful, and just like Sproles, he plays like it.
Now, we have one year of NFL “production” from Scott — primarily a practice-squader for New Orleans before the Eagles poached him, we can’t yet decide if Scott’s usage or role can indeed be similar to Sproles. Remember, Sproles wasn’t just a scatback — he was the scatback. You had to worry about him on a weekly basis if you were coordinating the defense unfortunate enough to face him.
Scott does have noteworthy experience returning kickoffs (though Sproles was primarily a punt returner for Philly). Scott returned 29 kickoffs in college (no punts) and 7 for the Eagles in the four games he was active. Across a tiny sample size, he wasn’t dramatically noteworthy, but most kick returners lump into a crowded range, with only one or two distancing themselves each year.
But when you watch Scott return, you can see the same strengths that Sproles demonstrated for Philadelphia. Scott weaves through traffic with good suddenness and a high step frequency, with that feel for pace that is typical of all NFL returners. Alleyways on kick returns are long in distance but quick in duration, so you have to time your entrance and explosiveness appropriately.
You can draw some parallels between kick returning and the screen game on offense, in terms of setting up blocks in space with teammates who don’t really know where you are; getting vertical quickly because of the constant threat of pursuit defenders. The screen game (and the receiving game in general) was a huge aspect of Sproles’ usage in Philadelphia, and that’s where Scott currently needs the most work.
Sproles was essentially a split player across his career in Philly, taking 278 carries and seeing 251 targets (169 receptions). Across Scott’s final two seasons in Louisiana Tech, he only saw a total of 31 receptions — and his inexperience in the passing game is evident.
Take, for example, these screen passes he took in preseason with the Saints. Infrequently targeted on screens for the bulldogs, Scott currently lacks a good sense of spacing, and must learn how to make this throw easier for his quarterback by adjusting his route to pressure.
On the first two reps (v. Los Angeles Rams), Scott fails to gain adequate width to the sideline, thereby keeping large defensive linemen between the quarterback and himself and forcing the passer into lollipop passes that put Scott, the QB, and the ball all in danger. Against the Cardinals on the final rep, you see Scott push further outside to the numbers, making for an easier pass attempt and subsequently more successful play.
These screen paths are easier fixes, though they vary between particular play designs — perhaps the Saints just wanted to keep all their preseason screens as tight as possible. It’s far harder to elicit in Scott the natural route-running savvy that has powered Sproles’ career.
Here, we see an option route from Scott. Out of the backfield, this is a scatback’s deadliest route — Sproles, Alvin Kamara, Theo Riddick, and Danny Woodhead have moved many sticks on this idea alone.
(Yes, the ball is behind him. That’s because Taysom Hill isn’t a real quarterback. But anyway, back to the issue at hand.)
At the break point, Scott has at least a two-way go (if not more). Inside, outside, a buttonhook. He may even have multiple options to the inside: a square break or an upfield break, like we see here.
But on a quick-hitting option route against man coverage, Scott must know that the ball is likely coming his way the moment he snaps out of his break — the reason there are no defenders around is because they rushed the QB! — and thereby create and attack space with more intention and urgency. On top of that, we know the advantages of the Sproles/Scott frame — but a disadvantage here is the lack of length. Linebackers can undercut your route and attack the catch point, as we see here, if you can’t create separation space.
Quick, intentional, attacking space. Linebacker never stood a chance here for Sproles.
These are areas in which Scott’s traits fit that of Sproles’ traits, but he doesn’t yet have the skills that Sproles does. It’s unrealistic, as we’ve said, to expect Scott to become Sproles — but we do hope he fills Sproles’ role as the scatback, and can become the player to put on these routes for quick hitting, positive gains that stress the opponent’s linebackers.
As a runner, we don’t really know what exactly Scott is yet at the NFL. He produced on the ground at Louisiana Tech, averaging 7.4 yards/carry on 70 carries his junior season, and a still respectable 5.7 yards/attempt on 183 as a senior.
When we look for ideal scheme fits (power, outside zone, inside zone) for running backs, we rely on molds — but as we’ve discussed, the Sproles/Scott mold is an irregular one. The Eagles loved to use Sproles on draw plays (Sproles was often on the field for passing plays, so draws — runs that look like passes at first — played off of that tendency) and other quick-hitting, interior, man-blocking concepts: traps, wraps, pin/pull.
Scott didn’t see much of that for the Saints in the preseason: he was heavily a zone runner, who did well to sneak through small gaps and evade force defenders when asked to play out in space. Sproles can run outside/inside zone just fine (the Eagles ran a fair bit of inside zone with him), but as a committee back, he often deferred that role to the Ajayi/Blounts and Adams/Smallwoods of the world.
With Jordan Howard and Miles Sanders locked into the roster, should Scott be an active running back on game day, we should expect much of the same: they’ll run some of the more traditional running plays, while Scott is used in sneaky ways, like the traps and draws.
One area in which we do see overlap between Sproles’ running concepts in Philly and Scott’s concepts in New Orleans: the crack toss. Scott ran this play with good success for the Saints — and the Eagles love it because of how frequently they use Ertz, Goedert, and even Alshon/Agholor in these “Nasty Slot” alignments that allow for legal crackback blocks.
As you’re integrating Scott into the offense and redefining the particular roles for your committee backs, given all the newcomers, this is where you might start with Scott: giving him a space look with multiple lead blockers, as he should be familiar with due to his returning background/usage on screen plays. Ideally, Scott would grow into a strong draw/trap runner, to take over Sproles’ mantle on those plays — we just don’t have any film evidence of him executing those concepts, well or poorly.
But we do have a fair bit to like from Scott as a zone runner, and that in and of itself is an exciting concept. The Eagles’ running game bread and butter is zone, and just as Sproles was always trustworthy for a four-yard gain on inside zone, so Scott uses his size, quickness, and leverage to regularly pick up positive gains.
That first run couldn’t be more Sprolesian. Hard zone flow, see quick daylight, stick and drive upfield for a positive gain.
The early comparisons between Darren Sproles and Boston Scott are easy. Both are aberrations in size, inconvenient for defenders, and heart-jumping every time they get a touch in space. But to say Scott is ready to take on Sproles’ role means he has to become one of the ultimate Swiss Army knives of modern football, and that’s something that will take years of work.
What we currently have with Scott is a player in Sproles’ physical mold — that’s rare enough to begin with — and with his same elusive, tackle-breaking traits. The growth Scott demonstrates in his sophomore season will determine not only if he makes the roster, but which of Sproles’ many hats he’s ready to wear. Scott can take on Sproles’ roles, but it will take time and deliberate planning — and given the changes in the running back room since Sproles’ departure, it’s likely that replacing the unique player will take a village, not just a man.
But Scott should get Eagles fans excited, as he battles for the RB3 or even RB4 spot. What he brought from Louisiana Tech has clearly translated into the league, and he landed in a perfect spot to develop into something more.
The only potential hiccup: that my vested interest in another scatback proves the kiss of death once again.