We’re not even officially at midseason yet, but there’s one race we can go ahead and call.
In the category of “Best NFC South free-agent signing," we have a winner. It’s New Orleans’ Darren Sproles.
Yeah, Ray Edwards is fitting in pretty well with Atlanta, Michael Koenen’s doing a nice job in Tampa Bay and Ron Edwards would have been a really nice pickup for Carolina if he hadn’t suffered a season-ending injury in training camp. If we’re going to include a Carolina player in the honorable-mention slot on this one, let’s bend the rules a bit and go with tight end Greg Olsen, who wasn’t a free agent, but came in a trade with Chicago.
But none of those guys has come close to doing what Sproles has for the Saints. They’re all pretty much doing what they did in their other stops.
Sproles is doing more than he ever did in six productive seasons in San Diego. Through seven games, Sproles leads the NFL with 1,115 all-purpose yards and he’s getting more opportunities to run the ball and catch passes than ever before. He already has made New Orleans fans forget Reggie Bush, the last guy who was supposed to be a running back, receiver and return man.
The Saints have been very careful not to publicly declare Sproles an upgrade over Bush, but it’s become very clear that’s exactly what they got.
This didn’t happen entirely by accident.
It happened, in large part because quarterback/King of New Orleans Drew Brees wanted it to happen. It happened because Brees worked hard to recruit Sproles.
“Darn right I did,’’ Brees said.
There’s history with Brees and Sproles. Brees’ last season in San Diego (2005) was Sproles’ rookie year. The two have worked out together in California (where Brees keeps a home) in offseasons through the years, and that happened even more this offseason due to the NFL lockout.
As negotiators worked on a labor deal, Bush’s future in New Orleans was very much up in the air. He was scheduled to count $16 million against the salary cap and the Saints wanted to knock that number down. Bush wasn’t willing to do that and he wound up being traded to the Miami Dolphins.
Sproles was sitting out there as a free agent. Brees didn’t view Sproles as the next-best thing to Bush. He imagined the possibilities and saw something that could be far better.
"I was like, 'Oh man, we’ve got to get this guy. He’s too special a player.'" Brees said.
It wasn’t a hard sell with the coaching staff or the front office. The Saints knew they needed someone to take over Bush’s many roles.
“Our feeling at that time was that a lot of the things we liked to do with Reggie, we thought we would feel very comfortable doing with Darren,’’ New Orleans coach Sean Payton said.
The Saints went out and offered Sproles a four-year contract that averages $3.5 million per season (and a much friendlier cap number than Bush’s). There were other teams interested, including the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who, at the very least, made some overtures toward Sproles, plus the Chargers wanted to keep him. But there was one big reason why Sproles was ticketed for no place other than New Orleans.
“I think his relationship with Drew Brees had a lot to do with us getting him here,’’ Payton said.
Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis are known for being excellent talent evaluators and projecting how players will fit into their system. But Payton admitted he underestimated what he was getting in Sproles.
“After having him here, we’ve seen he’s maybe even a better runner than we anticipated, just from the backfield without even all the screens and passes,’’ Payton said. “He’s versatile. He handles space real well. He’s quick. He’s a great teammate. He’s very smart. He’s just one of those dedicated players that football is very important to. He loves playing.’’
In New Orleans, Sproles is getting plenty of chances to play. It’s gone beyond the role of change-of-pace back and return man that Sproles had in San Diego. Sproles has been used in a three-man backfield rotation with rookie Mark Ingram and veteran Pierre Thomas.
The Saints are starting to use Sproles more as a pure runner out of the backfield. He got a season-high 12 carries in Sunday night’s victory against Indianapolis and he responded with a season-high 88 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown.
Sproles is averaging a career-high 7.3 yards per carry and the Saints may have used some very simple logic in deciding to give him more carries -- if he’s gaining 7.3 yards a carry, he can put up a lot more yards if he’s getting the ball more.
If the Saints keep feeding the ball to Sproles and he stays anywhere near his current pace, he could easily double his previous high for rushing yards in a season (343) in 2009. And it’s not like the increased running duties are diminishing Sproles’ value as a receiver or a return man.
Sproles is tied with teammate Jimmy Graham for second in the NFL with 45 receptions. He leads all running backs in catches and is on pace to shatter his previous-best season total of 59 catches from last season. In fact, at his current pace, Sproles would finish the season with 103 receptions. The NFL record for receptions by a running back is 101, set by Larry Centers in 1995.
The chemistry between Brees and Sproles has been particularly apparent on third downs. Sproles has a league-high 15 receptions for 139 yards.
“Sprolesy has been awesome,’’ Brees said. “He’s just so dynamic. There are so many different things he can do. He can run the ball inside the tackles and he can run the ball outside, obviously. We can split him out and run routes with him and throw screens to him. He’s obviously a big part of our special teams in the return game. He’s just so versatile. He’s great in pass protection. He’s just a really prideful guy who works extremely hard. He’s smart, he’s tough and I know what to expect out of him. Every play, I know exactly what I’m going to get from him.’’
Brees knew all along what he’d get from Sproles. The Saints and the rest of the NFL are just starting to realize that Sproles can do more than anyone else ever imagined.