Why Darren Sproles May Fade Into the Fantasy Football Background in 2015

Darren Sproles was once a PPR monster who fantasy owners craved. But with new competition added in the offseason, his fantasy football prospects have become unclear.

There was a time not too long ago when Darren Sproles was an ultra-dynamic NFL running back, and likewise, a very important part of numerous fantasy football rosters. In his first two seasons in New Orleans (2011 and 2012), Sproles averaged 80 receptions, 1,112 yards from scrimmage, and 8.5 total touchdowns per season.

In those two seasons he finished as the fifth- and 12th-best fantasy running back in PPR scoring formats and averaged 1.57 (2011) and 1.76 (2012) PPR fantasy points-per-touch, both of which ranked near the top of the league in each respective season.

Now entering his age 32 season, should we automatically expect less of a role for the Eagles’ pass-catching specialist? Or is a late-career resurgence possible in Chip Kelly’s uptempo offense, a system in which he showed glimpses of potential last year? 

Added Competition

In 2014, Sproles played behind LeSean McCoy, one of the highest usage running backs in the league. So even with the clash between McCoy’s running style and Kelly’s play calling, which limited his workload at times in the second half of the season, third-year back Chris Polk got just as much run as Sproles did.

Even though Sproles was a much more efficient runner according to our Rushing  Net Expected Points (NEP) metric (0.21 Rushing NEP per carry compared to Polk’s 0.04), the carry distribution was nearly even: 56 for Sproles, 46 for Polk.

Polk is now fighting to replace the injured Arian Foster in Houston, but Philadelphia made aggressive offseason moves by bringing in DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews. Although both have a history of injuries, it’s safe to say both are superior running backs compared to Polk, casting doubt on Sproles’ role if the two remain healthy for the majority of 2015.

Declining Pass-Catching Efficiency

At 5’6” and 180 pounds, Sproles has never been used as a true bellcow running back, likely for good reason -- see Andre Ellington (whose Rushing NEP of -28.34 was worst in the NFL last season). But what Sproles may lack in size, he has made up for in blur-like quickness over the course of his nine-year career.

But as with most running back in their 30’s, relative production begins to fall and continues to fall at a fairly steady rate. Below are the Rushing and Reception NEP metrics for Sproles over the last three seasons. Despite having the second-most efficient rushing season of his career in 2014, his receiving efficiency -- the area where Sproles is likely to be used in 2015 -- has steadily decreased since the 2012 season. 

Season Rushes Rushing NEP Rushing NEP/Rush Targets Reception NEP Reception NEP/Target
2012 48 -0.96 -0.02 104 54.52 0.52
2013 53 -0.80 -0.02 89 39.65 0.45
2014 56 11.96 0.21 62 24.74 0.40

Even with a decline in volume, Sproles has lost his efficiency, which naturally isn't a good sign for a bounceback at this age.

Realistic Expectations

With the influx of talented running backs onto the Eagles roster following the departure of McCoy, the inability of Sproles to keep Chris Polk off the field in 2014, and the drop in Sproles’ efficiency catching the ball out of the backfield, it’s important that we keep our expectations for this season in check.

Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur has intimated that  the Eagles will make a concerted effort to get Sproles the football in a myriad of ways, in addition to his normal punt return duties. But knowing how many fantasy-relevant touches that will be a difficult endeavor.

Chip Kelly has come out and said that he planned all along to pair starter DeMarco Murray with another running back to mitigate some concerns about Murray’s immense 2014 workload, which is encouraging. But it’s likely that Mathews will be first in line for touches when Murray does see rest.

But no fantasy draft pick is completed within a vacuum. Draft cost is crucial. Here is the backfield trio's average draft position shift from June 17th to August 17th, according to Fantasy Football Calculator

Are these asking prices fair?

Even though Kelly has voiced concerns about Murray's workload, if we use his first two seasons as an NFL head coach as evidence, it's likely he will feed his top back a large majority of the total running back touches. In 2013 and 2014, McCoy saw 79% and 70% of the total running back touches -- a role that Murray should slide right into. The remaining 20 to 30% will likely be some type of split between Sproles and Mathews.

It will be interesting to see if the Eagles' coaching staff acknowledges the fact that from an efficiency standpoint in 2014, Sproles was better than Mathews in both rushing and receiving, according to our metrics. 

Player Rushing NEP/Carry Reception NEP/Target
Darren Sproles 0.21 0.40
Ryan Mathews 0.09 0.36

Here at numberFire, we don’t expect anything resembling Sproles' former glory days in New Orleans and San Diego and have him  projected to finish as the 51st running back in 2015, compared to Mathews who we have pegged as the 37th-best fantasy football back.

As things sit right now, drafting Sproles at his current ADP is a low-risk but low-reward venture with little chance for much more barring a catastrophic injury in Philadelphia.