THE NFL preseason is a necessary evil with two basic coaching objectives: 1) try not to get anybody hurt, especially your really, really good players; and 2) play it fairly close to the vest offensively and defensively so you don't give too much away to your regular-season opponents, particularly the ones you will play in September.
The rest of the NFC East is as eager as you and I are to see how Professor Chip Kelly will use his new 5-6, 190-pound toy, Darren Sproles. Where will they line him up? How will they get him the ball? Will he be used strictly as a receiver out of the backfield or will he also be used in the run game? Will he be paired very often with LeSean McCoy?
"We'll just have to wait and see," Sproles said with a sly smile yesterday shortly before the Eagles departed for New England and 3 days of joint practices with the Patriots.
We certainly didn't get any clues in Friday's preseason loss to the Bears. Sproles was in the game for only seven plays. He ran the ball three times for 11 yards out of a one-back set, including an impressive 9-yard run. He wasn't targeted at all in the passing game.
When the Saints put the word out in March that they were looking to shed Sproles' contract, the Eagles couldn't get to the phone fast enough to make an offer for him. Giving up a fifth-round pick for a guy with 232 receptions the last 3 years who also happens to be one of the league's better return men was a no-brainer.
What Sproles gives Kelly is a lethal space player who will force opposing defenses to play a lot less man coverage against the Eagles this season than they did last season. Kelly has said the Eagles saw man coverage 60 to 70 percent of the time last season.
"God bless them [if teams try to play man against Sproles]," said Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis, who had the unenviable task of trying to defend Sproles in the playoffs last season. "He is hard to cover out of the backfield. And you are very aware, as a defensive signal-caller, who is matched up in your man coverage on him. And Shady [McCoy], too, for that matter.
"Those are two great space athletes that are difficult to cover. If you're trying to cover them with linebackers and safeties, they'd better be quick. Because both of those guys are so shifty. It's a hard matchup.
"We usually put a whole player to that side, or an extra body in our man coverages to help on that back, especially when they're out of the backfield as much as they are. I'm glad we have them and don't have to defend them, I know that."
Sproles said defenses seldom played man coverage during his three seasons with the Saints. And he doesn't think they'll be able to play it much against the Eagles this season, either.
"We barely saw it there," he said. "Here, man coverage, with the type of weapons we've got, you're not going to be able to play that. Not for too long at least, you know what I'm saying? We're hoping for man coverage."
Sproles won't be on the field a lot. For one thing, he's 31, which is dangerously close to nursing-home age for a running back, even one who appears to be in phenomenal shape.
For another, McCoy led the league in touches last season. And while the Eagles want to lighten his load a bit, they don't want to underuse the guy who won the league rushing title.
And for another, Sproles never has been a workhorse back like McCoy. He's more of a, well, a boutique running back. He's played more than 500 snaps in a season only once in his career (501 in 2011). Last year, he played only 364 snaps and had 165 touches. McCoy played 890 snaps and had a league-high 366 touches.
Sproles had only 53 rushing attempts last season, but had 71 receptions. He's never had more than 93 carries in a season. And while there's every reason to believe he could thrive as a runner in the Eagles' offense, he is expected to earn his keep primarily as a receiver and a punt returner.
"You've always got to make sure who's matched up against him when you're playing him," Davis said of Sproles. "Even in a zone, you've got to know. Because those wheel routes, anybody that has the flat has [responsibility for] the wheel route. It could be a big linebacker that has him. So now, you've got to make sure you have a safety over the top. It's all connected.
"He makes you think through that. And that's just the running back in the backfield. You still have the receivers and [the Saints' Jimmy] Graham at tight end and all those other issues. That's the thing about getting Sproles. That's just one more guy you've got to be very conscious of in your matchups."
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