Darren Sproles is a unique NFL talent. He's consistently one of the most prolific pass-catchers out of the backfield, has dynamite potential as a returner, and has shown the ability to be efficient while running the ball when given consistent opportunities.
His myriad ways to produce on the field netted him 2,696 all-purpose yards in 2011, an NFL single-season record.
This combination has made him a valued fantasy football running back, particularly in points per reception leagues, and a staple in the New Orleans Saints offense as a trusted receiver for Drew Brees.
This past season, though, Sproles experienced a hit in production.
The most obvious decline is his receiving touchdowns, falling from seven in his first two seasons with the Saints to just two last year. This diminished number was due, in part, to Jimmy Graham's 16 receiving touchdowns, which was an increase from 11 touchdowns in 2011 and 9 touchdowns in 2012. As for Sproles, on a per-game basis, his third year with the Saints was his worst in every category except rushing touchdowns per game. Sproles played 16 games in 2011, 13 in 2012, and 15 in 2013.
One reason for the drop off between 2012 and 2013 was his time on the field.
According to FootballOutsiders.com, Sproles also played fewer offensive snaps in 2013 (357) in 15 games than he did in 13 games in 2012 (444). That's a decline from 34.2 to 23.8 per game. Most of these lost snaps went to Pierre Thomas, who accounted for 564 offensive snaps, 50.1% of the Saints' offensive snaps on the season. A significant amount of receptions went to Thomas as well.
Thomas, who turns 30 in December, set a career high in receptions (77) and receiving yards (513) and actually recorded more catches than Sproles in 2013 (77 to 71). Thomas's previous career high in receptions was 50. He also hauled in one more touchdown - three - than Sproles' two. Thomas received 147 carries, which tied his career high from 2009. However, he achieved only 3.7 yards per carry, his career low (excluding a 3.2 mark in 2010 when he played only six games). His 3.7 yards per carry ranked only 33rd among NFL running backs this season.
While this suggests he was below-average, our metrics suggest otherwise. Let's look at Thomas' Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP), which identifies how many actual points a player provides for his team over the duration of a season.
Of 39 running backs who received at least 125 carries, Thomas ranked 12th last season in Rushing NEP, finishing with a 2.36 score. This ostensibly seems low, but running the ball is a meticulous endeavor. For comparison, keystone backs Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch netted just 7.59 points and 4.81 points, respectively, earning them the 8th-best and 11th-best Rushing NEP marks on the season among higher-volume runners.
In case you're wondering, Sproles finished with a Rushing NEP of -0.80 on his 53 carries, or -0.02 per attempt. Thomas netted a positive 0.02 points per attempt.
Additionally, the raw statistics and career highs of Thomas' receiving season are again a bit faulty - they suggest that he can help negate the loss of Sproles out of the backfield. However, Sproles' Reception NEP numbers are still elite. Of the 20 running backs who caught at least 40 passes this season, Sproles finished fifth in Reception NEP (39.65). Thomas finished 14th (20.33). Both backs finished top-five in this subset in targets (89 for Sproles and 84 for Thomas).
Sproles, though, was much more efficient on his targets and his receptions. He finished third in Target NEP (31.61), while Thomas was 12th (13.30). Additionally, Sproles was much more likely to account for a reception that positively influenced his team's chance of scoring points. Heachieved a positive result (one that increased his Reception NEP positively) on 69.01% of his receptions, which ranked eighth in the subset. Thomas was successful only 59.74% of the time, 19th-best out of the 20 running backs. This suggests that Thomas' reception numbers are inflated due to the high number of unsuccessful or negative receptions.
This is a prime example of when counting stats (like receptions) can be deceiving and why our NEP metric is a much better gauge of production.
Mark Ingram won't be a likely candidate to help replace Sproles' receiving productivity because he has tallied only 24 receptions in his three years in the NFL. Also, he wasn't very effective rushing the ball last season, tallying 78 carries for 386 yards and one touchdown in 11 games. Of the 20 running backs who recorded between 50 and 100 rushes last year, Ingram ranked 14th in Rushing NEP (-5.72) 12th in Rushing NEP Per rush (-0.07), and 12th in Success Rate (39.74%), which measures the percentage of rushes that contribute positively towards a player's NEP score.
Khiry Robinson was marginally more successful than Ingram last season. Robinson was 9th in Rushing NEP (-4.19), 13th in Rushing NEP Per Rush (-0.08), and 13th in Success Rate (37.04%). Robinson, however, didn't record a reception. If Ingram and Robinson don't improve on their average Rushing NEP marks or fail to contribute out of the backfield, the Saints could face significant struggles with their consistently successful offense.
Head coach Sean Payton anticipates most of the Sproles touches will to go to third-year running back Travaris Cadet. Cadet has just seven career receptions for 49 yards and a touchdown along with and one carry for five yards and a fumble. Replacing 71 receptions, though, is a tall order for the unproven back.
The punt return situation in New Orleans will need to be assessed as well. In losing Sproles, the Saints are losing one of the most consistent and effective punt returners in the league. He's been a large reason for his team's return success in the past. Here are Sproles' punt return numbers as well as the Offensive Punt Return NEP of the teams he played on during those seasons.
|Season and Team||Punt Returns||Yards||Touchdowns||Long||Offensive Punt NEP||Rank|
Aside from a slow rookie season and an anomalous 2010 season, Sproles has been integral in some of the most efficient punt return teams during his tenure in the NFL. In his three seasons with the Saints, Sproles has monopolized punt returns. Aside from Sproles, only Cadet and Lance Moore returned a punt in this three-year span. In their five combined attempts, they netted seven yards.
The departure of the 30-year-old Sproles may not be a crippling one for a team as resilient and talented as the Saints. They do have Thomas, who was an above-average rusher. But his production out of the backfield will not be as easily replaceable as the raw statistics from Thomas' 2013 season would indicate, and a viable punt returner must emerge to help keep the Saints from the shadow of their own goal post during this upcoming season.