Is Darren Sproles more than a handcuff?
In fantasy football, occasionally, there can be a hazy line between "handcuff" and "flex play." Make no mistake, there's a distinct difference between the two.
A "handcuff" is a player who serves as the immediate backup to a useful starter, and is unquestionably the one who would step into that role should the man ahead of him on the depth chart get hurt. You would "handcuff" the backup to the starter to protect yourself against an untimely injury.
A "flex play" is an active player in your lineup, either a running back or wide receiver, most often selected based upon a favorable matchup in a given game. In ESPN standard leagues, these players would effectively serve as the 21st through 30th-best players at either position.
So essentially, what we're wondering today is does Darren Sproles have a chance at cracking the top-30 fantasy players at his position?
Going by 2008 statistics, the answer is a clear no. Sproles finished 42nd in fantasy points among running backs, averaging 5.9 per game. Only four times all year did he manage a fantasy point total among the top 30 at his position. And not once in his 16 regular season games did he amass more rushing attempts than the man ahead of him on the depth chart, the man to whom he's a handcuff, LaDainian Tomlinson.
Fantasy success, however, does not come from living in the past. While the raw facts Sproles presented in 2008 seemed to paint a picture of solely a handcuff player, he offered a few hints that indicated he has more to come.
First of all, there's the matter of when Sproles' best efforts came: In the month of December and during the postseason are the most relevant times from his past for determining future potential. In Weeks 14 and 17, he was a top-10 fantasy running back, and in Week 16 he finished in the top-30, despite a scant 25 rushing attempts combined in those three games. Sproles totaled 150 scrimmage yards with two touchdowns in relief of an injured Tomlinson in the team's wild-card playoff game against the Colts and 106 yards and a score starting in Tomlinson's place the following week in the divisional round.
For the season, Sproles averaged 5.4 yards per carry, well above Tomlinson's 3.8. He finished first in the NFL among running backs in receiving touchdowns (5), 14th in receiving yards (342) and second total return yards (1,625). Even though Tomlinson received the lion's share of the Chargers' rushing attempts, 69.4 percent (292 of the team's 421) compared to Sproles' 14.5 (61 of 421),Sproles was about as effective as a backup could be as a pass-catcher and special-teams player.
Then there's the matter of Tomlinson's future potential: He turned 30 years old on June 23, hitting that dreaded age for a running back. He has a whopping 2,657 career carries on his legs and is coming off the worst season of his eight-year career. That the Chargers ramped up Sproles' rushing workload down the stretch in 2008, a season in which Tomlinson's overall numbers steeply declined, might suggest the team realizes it needs to keep its veteran starter's workload in check. A smart coach would, at the least, drop Tomlinson's number of rushing attempts to about 50 percent, leaving noticeably more to Sproles.
Keep in mind, many successful teams have employed running back-by-committee attacks since the turn of the century. The NFL can be a bit of a copycat's game, and with Tomlinson the age he is, the Chargers would be foolish not to at least entertain the thought heading into the season.
The winter news seemed to suggest the team was already beginning to think that way. Rumors circulated that Tomlinson might have been jettisoned in a salary-cap move during the offseason and the Chargers designated Sproles their franchise back, guaranteeing him a $6.6 million contract. Coach Norv Turner might have told the San Diego Union-Tribune recently that Sproles will complement Tomlinson while getting the majority of his work on kick and punt returns, but that sounds much like a fellow backup coming off a decent 2008
That backup being Leon Washington. Washington finished 30th in fantasy points among running backs in 2008, a number that branded him flex-play consideration, in spite of getting as many as 10 carries only twice all season. The Jets picked their spots for Washington on offense, and coincidentally, Turner said in that same article about Sproles that the team would "pick out spots with him on offense."
Washington might even represent the low end of Sproles' 2009 fantasy projection. The Chargers' offense this season boasts a better quarterback, starting running back and tight end than the Jets had last season, along with argueably the No. 1 wide receiver, meaning more weapons and more point potential. Then there's the matter of the wear and tear on the legs of the man ahead of him on the depth chart. Entering 2008, Thomas Jones' age-30 campaign, Jones had 1,659 rushing attempts on his legs -- nearly 1,000 fewer than Tomlinson has entering 30. To say that Tomlinson has a somewhat greater potential for catastrophic injury this year than Jones did last isn't a stretch, and that would thrust Sproles into a premium starter's job.
You might regard -- and more importantly, be able to select in a draft -- Sproles as solely a handcuff to Tomlinson. His average draft position falls in the eighth or ninth-round range. But based on the prospects of his emerging as either a starter, or more likely a bit of a change-of-pace back, there's a good chance he'll elevate himself to at least flex-start consideration, à la Washington. At the bare minimum, he's at least an appealing back to have during the difficult bye weeks.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is an FSWA award-winning fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.