Darren Sproles had a throwback season in 2011, a throwback to a much earlier era when several backs had proficient receiving seasons and would often put up as many or more receiving yards out of the backfield as rushing yards. Frank Gifford, Lenny Moore, Bobby Mitchell, Timmy Brown, Abner Haynes, Keith Lincoln and Hewritt Dixon all had either more receiving yards than rushing yards from age 25 to 28, or close to an even split.
In more recent years, other than a few specialists who bear a resemblance to Sproles as returners/all purpose players (most notably Eric Metcalf and Ronnie Harmon), it was a few pass catching fullback types who ended up with more receiving yards than rushing out of the backfield–Keith Byars, John L. Williams and Larry Centers.
Darren Sproles, for four straight years, has had more receiving yards than rushing yards catching passes from Philip Rivers then Drew Brees. The surprise, though, in New Orleans last year was just how prolific he was. Over 600 yards both rushing and receiving, 6.9 yards per carry, and 9 touchdowns from scrimmage to go with a punt return touchdown. Despite having less than 100 rushing attempts, Sproles finished the year 10th in standard fantasy scoring and even higher in points per reception (PPR) leagues.
So, how do we value such a season going forward, and how likely is it to continue?
I looked back at every other season since the merger where (A) a running back finished in the Top 20 in standard fantasy scoring, and (B) had more receiving yards than rushing yards. There were actually 25 such seasons. The average line: a finish of 15th in running back points, 471 rushing yards, 732 receiving yards, and 8 total touchdowns.
The following year, the averages were 446 rushing yards, 479 receiving yards, and 4.5 touchdowns, and an average finish of #42. However, we probably want to look at medians here, since three backs failed to get to 100 total yards the next year and pull the numbers way down. The median result was a final ranking of RB #26 the next year.
However, age was a factor. Those eight backs who were 27 years of age or older in their big combo season had a median finish of 42.5 the next year, compared to 23.0 for all other backs. Rushing yards held steadier than receiving yards, and the biggest regression was in touchdowns. Of course, Sproles’ rushing numbers are probably also unsustainable given his 6.9 yards per carry last year. His career average in San Diego was a still healthy 4.6 yards per carry, and you should probably project between 4.5 and 5 yards per carry this year. His 9 touchdowns from scrimmage were also a career high.
You should probably project Sproles for a slight decline in receptions, a lower yards per carry, and a little more than half the number of touchdowns from last year. I’ll pencil in 400 rushing yards on 80 carries (still an increase over the San Diego days), another 550 yards on 60 catches, and 5 touchdowns. Those numbers would put him in line for about a finish in the 24-28 range, similar to the median for the group of high receiving usage Top 20 fantasy backs in the past.
I still think Sproles is the back to own from the Saints backfield, but be realistic given his age and lower usage, which means his value in 2011 relied on a spike in yards per carry and touchdowns, as well as an increased role from his San Diego days (which should continue barring injury). Of course, a back that projects to finish around RB25 should be drafted higher than 25th. He should go more in the RB 17-20 range. In a PPR league, Sproles should still crack the top 15 in your selections, but not the top 12.
[photo via US Presswire]