By Katherine Terrell, NOLA.com
If it had all worked out differently, the scene at a practice for Sunday’s Pro Bowl could’ve resembled a Saints game.
First, former LSU star Odell Beckham Jr., who went to the Giants in the 2014 NFL draft before the Saints had a chance to nab him, caught a touchdown pass. Then Saints tight end Jimmy Graham did the same, and fake dunked the ball over the goal post. Saints running back Mark Ingram took a handoff on one of the next plays.
Then there was former Saint Darren Sproles, who streaked down the sideline, with a defender not giving much of a chase, and tried a failed pitch to a teammate that caused everyone to crack up in laughter.
Sproles has waited 10 years to get into the Pro Bowl, despite having the accolades to have earned a berth earlier. He’s enjoying every minute.
It was less than a year ago that Graham, Ingram and Sproles wore the same colors. In an effort to free up cap room, Sproles was traded to the Eagles in the offseason for a fifth round draft pick that was used to select Ronald Powell.
It was admittedly difficult for Sproles, who felt the Saints disrespected him by trading him instead of granting him his release. His wife Michele went on a bitter tirade via her Instagram account about how the Saints did him wrong.
But he finally seems to be at peace with what happened.
“It’s part of the business,” he said, while admitting it stung. “But it’s over with.”
And why not? At 31, Sproles is playing some of the best football of his career. He earned his first Pro Bowl berth this year, along with second-team All-Pro honors. If he was going to be shipped off anywhere, it seems the Eagles have been a good fit.
“Yeah. Yeah I do,” he said, when asked if he think he landed in the right spot.
The Saints likely anticipated Sproles would be successful elsewhere, but perhaps not to the extent he was in 2014. Sproles had a huge resurgence as a punt returner, returning a career-high 39 punts for 506 yards and two touchdowns. He rushed for 329 yards and six touchdowns.
The Eagles finished second in the league in punt return yards, averaging 33.2. Meanwhile the Saints struggled to get the return game going and finished 31st with a meager 8.4 yards-per-game.
At 31, Sproles was rejuvenated in his new environment. It was almost similar to his first season with the Saints after five seasons with the San Diego Chargers. Sproles set the NFL record for most single-season all purpose yards (2,696) that year.
Sometimes a new place isn’t so bad.
“It always helps,” Sproles said. “Once you’ve been somewhere for so long … the teams that you play kind of know what you’re going to do when you come in the game. They know the routes you’re going to run. You go somewhere new, and they don’t know that yet.”
Sproles is happy with his situation now. He still keeps in touch with several Saints, including Drew Brees, Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Curtis Lofton. At the Pro Bowl, he took pictures with Brees and Jimmy Graham.
“Reunited and it feels so good,” tweeted Brees, who trains with Sproles in the offseason.
And there’s no hard feelings toward Saints coach Sean Payton, who broke the news that Sproles would be released.
The Saints later switched course and traded him to the Eagles. Why they decided to part with him was never really explained.
“Hey, Sean’s still my guy,” Sproles said. “I don’t have a problem with him. That’s just part of the business.”
To Sproles, any year he still gets to play football is lagniappe at this point. He said he always wanted to play 10 years. The 2014 season was his 10th year in the league, and ninth accrued season (he spent 2006 on injured reserve).
“My goal coming into this was to play 10 years,” he said. “This last year was 10 years, so anything past 10 was just a bonus.”