ORLANDO — Doug Pederson says he wants Darren Sproles back.
“He’s expressed he wants to be back here. He knows we want him back here. Yeah, heck yeah,” Pederson said Tuesday at the NFL owners meetings. “He’s a big part of our team. Punt returner. He was a tremendous back, third-down guy. Yeah, so we’ll see where that falls out.”
Sproles, who is coming off a major knee injury, became a free agent almost two weeks ago, but he has yet to meet with any teams let alone sign a contract. Teams, including the Eagles, likely want to see him progress further in his rehab before considering offering a deal. The veteran running back tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during the Sept. 24 game against the New York Giants.
Sproles, who will turn 35 in June, said in December that he likely wanted to return for a 13th NFL season. Entering last season, he indicated that it could be his last and if he was to play beyond 2017 it might have to be for a team near his San Diego home. But he did a short social-media film five months after his injury in which he indicated he wanted to play again.
“I don’t have to play next year, but I’m leaning towards coming back,” Sproles said then. “I can’t end like this.”
Sproles won his first Super Bowl as part of the Eagles team, but he missed 13 regular-season games and all of the postseason. If he comes back, playing in a title game could be one motivating factor. The Eagles will certainly be among the favorites to repeat. Pederson said the Eagles spoke with Sproles during free agency.
“He wants to still play. I want him to play, and I want him to be an Eagle,” Pederson said. “He’s a veteran player. Let him spend time with his family. He’s one of those guys – you’ve seen what he’s done the last couple of offseasons. He hasn’t been here. He spends time with the family. He comes in from time to time.
“And I’m not concerned about a Darren Sproles going forward. I just know the way he works, the way he trains, the way he gets himself prepared. If and when he decides to sign and come back, come on, we’re ready for him.”
The Eagles lost LeGarrette Blount to the Lions in free agency, but they still have Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement returning as their likely top two tailbacks. Clement stepped into Sproles’ third-down role and flourished. Kenjon Barner was signed after Sproles’ injury and returned punts. But Sproles showed early last season before he went down that he still had his burst. He rushed 15 times for 61 yards (4.1 average), caught seven passes for 73 yards (10.4 avg.) and returned one punt for 10 yards in three games.
The Eagles also have running backs Wendell Smallwood and Donnel Pumphrey on the roster.
“I like Wendell. I think it was just a situation where we brought in Jay and Wendell was the guy we had to put down each week,” Pederson said. “I’m encouraged by Wendell. I think he’s got value to our football team. He brings special-teams value. I’m not concerned there. Again, another good draft coming up. We’ll see what happens. See where it falls out and try and add some depth and competition there, too.”