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Tiny Sproles making huge impact on post-Bush Saints

by | CBSSports.com
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METAIRIE, La. -- Darren Sproles lives his life outside of football unnoticed.

In a football-crazed city that likens Drew Brees to Jesus Christ, Sproles can dine at a local eatery and not be asked for his autograph until he inks the tip and total of his bill before signing his name on the check.

The average fan has an excuse, though. Sproles is listed as a generous 5-foot-6 and 190 pounds. Sproles physically looks more like the guy at the Saints practice facility who would pick up the equipment. Not the guy who throws it on every day.

We've seen Sproles overcome what mommy and daddy gave him -- to borrow an often-used cliche from Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams for a second -- for years in San Diego so much so that the Chargers franchise tagged Sproles entering the 2010 season. And yet the Chargers drafted a running back in the first round and made no real attempt to re-sign Sproles.

Do you remember who NFL execs and the media salivated over? Nnamdi Asomugha. Charles Johnson. Johnathan Joseph. Sidney Rice. Santonio Holmes. Eric Weddle. Cullen Jenkins. Ray Edwards. Antonio Cromartie. Ahmad Bradshaw. DeAngelo Williams.

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Barely a peep was made about Sproles. And all he's done halfway through the 2011 season has proven to be the best NFL free-agent acquisition this season. I don't think there should be much of an argument considering the production, the cost and the circumstances.

The salary cap figure for a declining Reggie Bush going into the 2011 season would have been a $16 million cap hit. It had been pretty clear that Bush was ready to sever ties with the Saints. So once the Saints traded Bush to the Dolphins, Brees worked the phones to broker a deal to bring Sproles, his former Chargers teammate and workout buddy in San Diego this offseason, to New Orleans to become Bush 2.0.

"I told him [before Bush was dealt] if Reggie's not here, you're going to be here,"

Brees said. Brees didn't have to do much convincing to Saints coach Sean Payton.

Bill Parcells nearly floored Sean Payton and the rest of Parcells' Cowboys coaching staff following the 2005 Senior Bowl. Payton said it was rare for Parcells to rave about anyone following from the yearly pilgrimage to Mobile, Ala. So for Parcells to boast about anyone shocked the room, and for Parcells to rave about a tiny tailback from Kansas State boggled everyone's minds. Parcells went as far to say that Sproles was the best player he saw all week.

So the Saints inked Sproles -- less than a week after trading Bush -- to a four-year, $14 million deal. So the life of his deal was less than what the Saints would have had to fork over to Bush in the final year of his original deal. At this point, you could argue that Sproles deserves Bush money as he has become the player with the Saints everyone expected Bush to have become.

Sproles leads the NFC and ranks second in the NFL in receptions with 56 as only the Patriots' Wes Welker has snared more passes. Sproles also leads the team in rushing with 347 yards averaging 7.1 yards per carry. Sproles' yards per carry is the best among the league's running backs ranked in the top 50 in rushing yards as only Michael Vick and Tim Tebow average more yards per carry that sit in the top 50.

He's the only NFL player this year to have a touchdown rushing (two), receiving (three) and on a punt return (one) and leads the NFL in all-purpose yards with 1,499. Sproles is only four receptions away from his single-season high in receptions going into this week's game at Atlanta, which he set last season with Philip Rivers in San Diego. And you know Rivers misses Sproles as a safety blanket this season. "I don't know what a good matchup is against Darren Sproles," Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo said. "He's an electrifying football player and a challenge to cover."

Sproles is second in the NFL in receptions and leads it in all-purpose yards. (US Presswire)  
Sproles is second in the NFL in receptions and leads it in all-purpose yards. (US Presswire)  
All of this in an offense with three other running backs who've started games this season for the Saints (Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory), a veteran and tight-knit receiving corps (Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem) and a blossoming Pro-Bowl caliber tight end (Jimmy Graham).

"Once you go out there, you better be ready for the ball because Drew [Brees] can throw it to you at any time," Sproles said.

Sproles said he's even surprised at how much of a fixture Payton has made him within the offensive game plan. On a weekly basis, Sproles said he figured he'd simply fit in as a prototypical third-down back and fill Bush's role. Sproles said he understands that he'll always be compared to Bush and I pointed out to him that he took residency in Bush's former locker.

"Reggie's a great player," Sproles said. "So when I get compared to him, it feels kind of good. You've just got to make your own name for yourself."

He's done that, and yet teammates and opposing coaches still marvel at how Sproles does it.

"He walks in the door and you think 'gosh this guy is tiny by NFL standards in terms of a running back,'" Brees said. "He had accomplished some great things in college. He was coming into a situation where we had LaDanian Tomlinson and Michael Turner, so really he was just fulfilling that special teams role the first year. Then from afar, I'm watching him because I liked him and wanted him to succeed.

"I'm watching his role increase and increase. He really was doing some great things in San Diego by the time he entered his fourth, fifth, sixth season and that was a big reason why this offseason, training with him and watching the way he works, he's a pro. He does anything you ask. When it came time to go back to camp, I said to Payton, 'You might want to go after this guy.'"

Panthers coach Ron Rivera spent a few seasons in San Diego watching Sproles shred his defense daily on the practice field as the Chargers defensive coordinator. So he may have a better perspective on Sproles than even Payton and Brees.

"The young man poses a lot of headaches for coaches and coordinators that are defense-minded. We knew that back in San Diego and I know that even more as a head coach watching the tape. ... The big thing about Darren and having sat in the meetings we talked about the players was we had so many weapons there though," Rivera said. "There's only one football on the field at a time and sometimes it's hard to spread it. I think right now what coach Payton is doing is he's taking a guy and featuring him and it's really helping the other positions.

"It's helping the tight end position, it's helping the wide receiver position as well, and it's helping the quarterback. ... It's easy to make that contact without really saying it, just knowing that -- hey, I'm going to run this route and stick it and come underneath it. It's something that when you put the tape on and you see it already and you go, 'Wow, they've really only worked together a few months.' It's impressive."

And a coup for the Saints.

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