By Michael McCarthy

Chip Kelly’s fast-break style of offense is predicated on spreading the field and creating as many stress points as possible for the defense on every play.

That might as well be Darren Sproles’ NFL calling card, because finding the open spaces on the field and knowing how to exploit them has been his trademark since he entered the league from Kansas State as a fourth-round pick of San Diego in 2005.

Sproles, the league’s preeminent scat-back, just went to work for a coach who knows how to use a scat-back.

It’s a tough call as to who feels more fortunate in this new relationship: the Eagles for finding a multi-dimensional weapon like Sproles available, or Sproles, who keeps finding himself in the employ of creative, offensively minded head coaches like San Diego’s Norv Turner, New Orleans’ Sean Payton and now Kelly.

Sproles very nearly signed as a free agent in Philly in 2011, thanks to the recruitment of Andy Reid, but ultimately opted for New Orleans.

“Man, this offense, it’s fun, real fun,” Sproles said after a recent OTA. “Because you have so many options every play. The defense has really got to guess right. Everything’s spread out, and there are so many holes to exploit. It’s like one of them situations where the defense can’t always be in the right place. They can’t be everywhere.”

As the Eagles’ centerpiece offensive pickup, it might seem as if Sproles is everywhere at times this year. Kelly will get him the ball in a variety of ways, running out of the backfield, catching passes from multiple formations, returning punts and perhaps kickoffs, too. Sproles was the first player in NFL history to top 2,200 all-purpose yards in four different seasons (2008-11), and he’ll perhaps be Kelly’s ultimate chess piece, creating potential mismatches, especially on third downs.

“In this offense, he can be anywhere at anytime,” said Eagles receiver Brad Smith of Sproles. “He’s a good route runner, and a guy who has caught 70-80 passes a year, with the quickness of a running back. With the nature of this offense, and how spread out it is, you’ve got so many ways to use him. You can give him the ball and let him pick and choose his hole, hiding behind the offensive line. You can use him in the screen game, put him in the slot, send him in motion when he’s playing receiver, returning punts, you really can’t peg him anywhere.”

Despite Sproles being the league’s leading receiver among running backs over the past six seasons (375 receptions, 3,371 yards), Kelly has been adamant in recent weeks that Sproles is a rushing threat first and foremost. He is not being counted on to single-handedly replace the 82 receptions — and 1,322 receiving yards — the Eagles lost when they released receiver DeSean Jackson, because the two are different types of players and Sproles can’t replicate Jackson’s downfield speed.

But Sproles’ versatility and ability to run laterally in Kelly’s cut-back-style running game should prove very useful, and don’t be surprised if he and the NFL’s leading rusher in 2013, LeSean McCoy are on the field at the same time in some instances, with Sproles lined up in the slot, outside at receiver, or in a two-man backfield.

The Eagles were often slowed offensively last season when defenses played their receivers in man-press coverage, loading up on run defense to key on McCoy. But Sproles gives Kelly a potential counter for that move, as the second-year Philly head coach pointed out in March at the NFL’s annual meeting.

“The addition of Sproles, are you going to play us in man?” Kelly said. “Now you have to have a linebacker cover him if he’s the back. That’s kind of a huge addition, when we thought about bringing him in.”

“I feel with this group here, we have so many weapons,” Sproles said. “It could be scary when it gets rolling. As long as I keep Shady [McCoy] healthy and fresh, we’re good. We’re going to just keep working and once we get to training camp, then we’re going to really see how this team comes together.”

Sproles, who is 31, knows the career arc of running backs after 30 often includes a precipitous drop in production, he’s not your typical candidate for such a fall-off. While not as explosive as he once was, his speed is still difference making, and the amount of wear and tear on his 5-foot-6, 190-pound body is not the same as what’s faced by an every-down back.

“That type of situation comes where teams really ride only one back,” Sproles said. “If you’re a lead back, you’re getting everything. But these days most teams have two or three backs rotating in, so they’re not taking the same type of beating. Especially with me, I’ve been used as more of a scat-back, so I’m not taking a pounding out there. If I am, something’s going wrong on offense for us.”


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