New Grantland: Darren Sproles and the rise of the “space player”

My new piece is up over at Grantland. Check it out.

Scan the list of the NFL’s total yardage leaders and you’ll see their names. Most of them have the title running back — Matt Forte, LeSean McCoy, Jahvid Best, and Ray Rice, to name a few — but there is no one prototype for these players. Indeed, in the same group you’ll also see receivers, most notably Wes Welker of the Patriots, a “slot receiver” who is the undisputed master of the underneath route and the receiver screen (although this year he’s been doing all that and more). An older example is former Pro Bowler Eric Metcalf, who made the rare switch from running back (where he ran for more than 600 yards in two different seasons with the Cleveland Browns) to wide receiver (where he had more than 1,000 yards in 1995 while playing in the Falcons’ run-and-shoot offense), all while returning kicks and punts. But without a doubt, today’s top space player is the New Orleans Saints’ runner/receiver/kick returner/human Molotov cocktail Darren Sproles. Sproles is straight-ahead fast, but he is a great space player because of his other attributes: quickness, lateral agility, a second gear to blow by defenders, and a low center of gravity. Sproles returns kicks for the Saints but, then again, every time he touches the ball it’s like a kick return — he’s in space, and one missed open-field tackle against him might mean a touchdown.

Read the whole thing.

  • Great article!  I’m learning so much about football reading your articles, which makes each game exponentially more interesting.  Big ups to Simmons for giving you wider audience and thanks for extending my appreciation of the game.

  • td

    The whole transformation of TE’s and RB’s and the match-up issue they create, coupled with identifying the blitz due to expanded formations has lead to the gaudy passing #’s you’re seeing now.  Nice article.

  • Socrates

    Thanks for the great article. I’m really enjoying your postings at Grantland.

  • Mr.Murder

    At times Dallas refused to bracket Best in the game, choosing instead to bracket Pettigrew early. messed up Stafford’s reads initially, having their tight end bracketed left an extra defender if he was part of a route combo read.

    Think the solution was to go back to Johnson, don’t leave his read early on the assumption that the cover fit would be going his way from what you see at the start of the play or before the snap. Into the second half the Lions actually formational leverage with that technique installment to make certain he maximized their best player’s value. Then it took away the ability to attack their other franchise target at tight end so Stafford could settle into a play range of progressions he is comfortable with.

    Best is getting 120 plus a game combined. Waiting to see when he really lights up some running stats like he did for Cal. In the NFL if you make no mistakes 80 rushing yards from the back can win it for a great passing offense.

  • Paul Meisel

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately — Percy Harvin at Florida, Reggie Bush, Dexter McCluster at Ole Miss —

    It seems to me this isn’t that new, there used to be people like this 50-60 years ago, mostly playing an archaic position called “halfback”.  Lenny Moore, Terry Metcalf, Leroy Kelly early in his career — and Hugh McElhenny and Lynn Chadnois, before my time.  Preston Carpenter never did receiver and runner at the same time, but he did do both….

    Of course a lot of “running backs” also did this type of thing… the terms halfback and fullback became unpopular.  But I don’t think football has been without this type of player since passing became popular. 

    Versatility in this case is a force multiplier.

  • Mr.Murder

    Joe Washington, Greg Pruitt, Mel Owens, etc.

  • Anonymous

    I agree. I mean, even in the 1980s Roger Craig had 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season for Bill Walsh’s ’49ers. When teams used more straight T formations and the traditional pro-set, “halfback” and “fullback” often really meant something in that the halfback was typically more of a dual threat. Many of the earlier “three wide receiver” sets involved motioning or shifting that halfback out wide. 

    My point of the article was to show where this current evolution is now and to focus on one player and one team and how they do it.

  • John Phamlore

    Dave Meggett, although I wonder if his subsequent actions are why his name isn’t mentioned much these days.

  • WPS

    Chris, I read how you have said that “space players” like Sproles are gamechangers, allowing offenses to gain another advantage over defenses.  I do recall, however, when discussing Holgorsen’s offense, you said  “I’m all for getting the ball to playmakers in different ways, but I am not — and neither is Holgorsen — a fan of doing it to the detriment of repetitions and becoming a master at your given position.”  I am curious-at what point do you believe a team should stop emphasizing multidimensional playmakers and go back to the specialization that makes football so unique?  Are you referring to  teams that try to use merely above-average players as multidimensional threats?   I see teams such as Florida with Tebow and Harvin, and Oregon’s DeAnthony Thomas, and the success they have had, and I naturally begin believing that there is something to building an offense around elite multipurpose players.  At the same time, I see the success Holgorsen has had with specialization at each receiver position, so I believe that philosophy is just as valid.

    I want to pursue a career in coaching football, so I’m trying to find a way to meld those 2 philosophies effectively.