sproles point2

March is a time in the NFL when age comes with assumptions based on history. Those assumptions lead to projections, and those projections lead to unemployment at the hands of a cruel salary cap fate. Often a job elsewhere is waiting, but one at a far reduced fee.

That’s the cold reality of football, and it’s why although I have little ability to muster scorn for the one or two annual contract holdouts when training camp opens each August. When you’re productive yet still beaten and discarded at the age of 30 — still quite youthful for a normal human — you have the right to squeeze every dollar out of your career.

Earlier this week that cruel fate led to Champ Bailey’s departure from the Denver Broncos, but although his name value will always and forever be high, his exit should have been easy to see coming. He’ll turn 36 this summer, he’s coming off a season when he was severely limited by a foot injury, and in back-to-bak years he’s been torched in the playoffs (last year by Torrey Smith, and this year by Percy Harvin).

But as the New Orleans Saints continue to shed weight while desperately clearing a landing spot for Jimmy Graham’s behemoth of a contract, a forthcoming move involving Darren Sproles doesn’t fit quite so easily into the age assumption.

Earlier this offseason swift change started when the Saints tossed aside defensive veterans Will Smith, Jabari Greer, and Roman Harper, and it continued with he axing of wide receiver Lance Moore. All of those names have replacements waiting behind them on the roster, especially Moore.

Sproles is a more difficult case. When most of you were a pint or two in Friday night reports started surfacing that Sporles will be released too. Soon after ProFootballTalk added that the Saints will continue to pursue a trade instead, and failing that a release is the end game. Either way, Darren Sproles’ time as a New Orleans Saint is on life support right now, and he knows it.

At this point Sproles could be officially cut by the time I’m finished this post. Or this sentence, and a front office that needs to find, oh, $6.8 million (and more likely in the neighborhood of $10 million annually) to sign Graham will have some more precious cash.

Cutting Sproles saves $3.8 million against the cap in 2014, and the Saints are currently just slightly above the cap cut line, with an estimated $528,992 in space. So more cuts are coming, but in Sproles the Saints have gifted 31 other teams a uniquely versatile player who’s truly a running back in name only.

Immediately last night it was noted that Sproles is beginning to decline, and although a simple glance at this past season’s numbers will verify that, those same numbers also outline a soon-to-be free agent who will be in high demand. Sproles’ total yards from scrimmage over the past three years, all in New Orleans…

  • 2011: 1,313
  • 2012: 911
  • 2013: 824

If we add in his return yardage, over those three seasons Sproles totaled 5,546 yards and 22 touchdowns. Sproles is a pass catcher first, and one who can be used everywhere, from the backfield to being split out wide. His career single-season high in receiving yards is 710, which came just two years ago. But of course the decline in that part of his game has mirrored that of his overall yardage.

  • 2011: 710
  • 2012: 667
  • 2013: 604

The slightly lower production is also the product of minor injuries which have led to three missed games over the past two years. Which brings us to the next concern about Sproles that was noted immediately last night: the aforementioned age death.

Sproles will turn 31 before the beginning of the 2014 season, and at that age most running backs are firmly planted in a rocking chair. I don’t need to run down the list of abrupt declines after or around the age of 30 at the position, but when we look back at the most commonly cited examples in that death search, there’s a fundamental shared existence: they’re all running backs in the true sense of the job description.

During his age 30 season Shaun Alexander mustered only 792 total yards, when he had 1,958 just two years prior. But heading into that season Alexander had 1,902 career touches, and 1,969 of those came on the ground. Then there’s Eddie George, another commonly cited running back spiral who reached the bottom of his pit at the age of 31. That’s when he finished with only 515 total yards and two years prior he had 1,420. We see a similar tale of abuse and physical wear: entering the year of his flameout George had 2,724 career touches.

How many does Sproles have prior to his age 31 season? 815.

By cutting Sproles before Pierre Thomas (who may also be cut), the Saints are projecting that the former will continue to lose steps and his decline will come more rapidly. Thomas isn’t exactly a young guy either at 29, but those two years can be significant in the life of a running back, and he’s still a fine receiver out of the backfield with 513 yards in that capacity this year. Depth is also available in the form of Mark Ingram, and young Khiry Robinson can continue to ascend.

Fair enough, but with Sproles and others like him who are far more pass catcher than runner, the aging process is new and uncharted territory. The most intense physical abuse comes when a running back is asked to repeatedly slam into walls of humanity with 20 or so carries per game. Those crushing hits can be avoided after the catch, when the receiver can duck, and have more control to dictate the terms of contact when he catches the ball in space, as a running back often does.

That’s why the few who excel at that part of the game — and only that part — could age differently, despite what their birth certificate says. Right now that applies only to Sproles and Danny Woodhead. They’re separated in age by only one year, yet they’ve combined for just 808 career carries. Sproles has appeared in 122 games, and his single-season touch high is 173.

That doesn’t sound like the mileage of a man who’s finished, or is about to plunge abruptly. No, it sounds like that of a player who should be the most highly coveted running back during free agency, and even if his production declines slightly or plateaus, around 800 total yards from a secondary running back is something every team with the required cash should be willing to pay for.

If he’s in the right system with the right offensive coordinator who will utilize him properly, Sproles has plenty to contribute.