Darren Sproles was a dot in the distance at the far end of one of the Eagles' practice fields Thursday, in a familiar position for the first time in a long time: catching punts. From the sideline, a pitching machine launched one football after another into the cloudy summer sky, and Sproles settled under and cradled each one in his hands without a juggle. The broken arm and torn ACL he suffered last September, that cost him most of the 2017 season and a chance to play in Super Bowl LII, seemed faint memories on the first day of Eagles training camp.
"It felt good," he said, a smile lingering on his face like he was savoring something. "This is year 14, and when I came into training camp this year, this was like the feeling I got when I was a rookie. It's that same type of feeling. I'm just ready to get back to work."
Earlier in the practice, though, when the Eagles' offense went into a third-down set during 11-on-11 drills, it wasn't Sproles lining up in the backfield next to quarterback Nick Foles, leaping to catch, with one hand, a high screen pass in the left flat. It was Corey Clement, who as an undrafted rookie last season saw his snaps and his importance increase once Sproles went down. He became the Eagles' third-down back, scoring six touchdowns during the regular season and starring in the Super Bowl: pulling in four Foles passes for 100 yards, catching a key touchdown, lining up as a shotgun quarterback to ignite for the "Philly Special."
Had Sproles not gotten hurt, would the Eagles have discovered just what they had in Clement? It was one example of serendipity in a season full of them. And now that Sproles is healthy again, now that he can return punts and catch passes and carry the ball, the Eagles' hope is that they can enjoy one season of having him and Clement available at the same time. Just one season, though. Sproles announced earlier this month that this would be his final NFL season, and with the way Clement emerged last year, with the possibility that he can be a more integral and dynamic part of the Eagles' offense, it's natural to view this season as a torch-passing from the respected veteran to the eager up-and-comer, which would be fine with Clement.
"You have to give him his respect and his due," he said of Sproles. "Once he does depart next year, I've got to be able to take over his role and follow his legacy. If you don't want to follow Darren's legacy, you're crazy.
"He doesn't let anything get to him, even though he isn't the biggest back or the fastest back. He doesn't let anything distract his mind. He's always calm-minded, knows what he can do. Just a brilliant player, even on the coaching side – he can teach young players how to do things."
Clement is happy to study at Sproles' side, but those tutorials take place only at the NovaCare Complex, for no other reason than the two are at different stages of their lives. Clement is 23 and single. Sproles is 35, with a wife and two daughters. "He has a family he has to get to," Clement said. "It's not like it is in college, when you can just hang out."
Sproles has returned 290 punts for 2,792 yards over his NFL career, accounting for more than 14 percent of the 19,155 total yards he has accumulated – the eighth-highest total in league history. At Wisconsin, Clement returned just two punts, and he didn't field one last season for the Eagles. So whatever wisdom Sproles is imparting to him is probably confined to their roles in the backfield. How the Eagles will deploy the two of them this season remains unknown for now, but head coach Doug Pederson and assistant head coach/running backs coach Duce Staley count on every back to be as comfortable with as much of the playbook as possible. In last season's NFC Championship Game, for instance, Clement pitched the ball to Foles as part of a 41-yard flea-flicker touchdown to Torrey Smith – even though Clement had not practiced the play that week.
For his part, Sproles admitted that it was both wonderful and difficult to watch the Eagles' Super Bowl run, and Clement's contributions to it, while recovering from his injuries. He considered retiring this summer, he said, but his daughter Devyn told him she wanted him to play one more year. "That's when I took my grind to a whole new level," he said. That's when he decided that, if there was to be any torch-passing, it was going to be done on his timeline and his terms. At the end of this season, not the beginning.
"Not yet," he said. "I'll be the same Sproles."