The Curious Case of Darren Sproles
July 16, 2017 | Ian Goldsmith
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It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Darren Sproles became forsaken by the fantasy football world. No matter the exact moment, when draft season rolls around every year, people magically forget that he is a high-performance Tank and drop him off at the scrap yard to rust. People get so caught up in flashier names that they forget the player who has been one of the most consistent fantasy performers of the past decade. Despite once again finishing as a top-30 player in the fake football world last year (the 8th straight season he has finished ranked 29 or better in full PPR leagues), he is languishing as the 54th RB off the board on Fantasy Football Calculator and an almost unbelievable 58th on MyFantasyLeague (12-team, PPR drafts).
There are certainly reasons why people might be reticent to draft him. Chief among these is his age; 34 year-old running backs in the NFL are rare, and those who can still perform at that age are even rarer. He’s also not the #1 RB for his team. Going into this season there was a chance that the opportunity would be afforded to him, but that went out the window when the Eagles signed former Patriot LeGarrette Blount in May.
Should people really care about either of these? Sproles is old by NFL standards, but is that enough to precipitate a drop into low-end RB5 territory? There have been a number of articles over the years that have pinpointed that 30 is an age where RB production begins to decline dramatically, if not a couple years earlier. Most analysis is concerned with rushing yards, rushing attempts, and injury history, for good reason . There have been a total of only 30 RBs (totaling 46 seasons) that have rushed for 1,000 yards in a season in the Super Bowl era, according to Pro Football Reference’ Play Index. Increase that to Sproles’ age, and you are left with only John Riggins, who ran for 1,000 twice after reaching that age.
How does age affect players after they’ve already turned 30? There is still clearly a negative correlation (see below), but it is weak at best. When we look at a simple linear trend line for PPR FP per game for 30+ RBs over the past 10 years, we see a correlation of roughly -0.16 and an r-squared value of only 0.02. Exploring this further, regression analysis I’ve run (not included here) indicates that the coefficient for age is certainly negative, but it is statistically insignificant. That is, after a running back has reached age 30, each extra year older means very little in the determination of fantasy points scored. That is not to say it should be discounted, but that we should also look at other measures for how we analyze older RBs. For RBs past 30, PPR fantasy points are still highly correlated to the number of touches a player receives. In fewer words, more opportunity equals more points.
30+ RBs, 2007-2016
PPR FP Per Game: Sproles vs. 30+ RBs, 2007-2016
Sproles, of course, is not a running back that gets his fantasy points via the ground. He’s run for over 400 yards only twice in his career: in 2011 and last year. However, he gets consistent touches, especially in the passing game, which is where anybody drafting him needs to focus their research. Since 2009, Sproles has received at least 57 targets in every season. He has turned these into at least 40 catches in every single once of those seasons. He has turned those catches plus his rushing attempts into at least 700 yards from scrimmage in every one of those seasons. Let’s look at players over 30 who have done this.
A total of only 23 players aged 30+ have ever met that 57/40/700 (targets/receptions/yards from scrimmage) line in the Super Bowl Era. Only 11 have done it at least twice. Only Sproles has done it more than that. He has done it four times since he crossed the dreaded age 30 barrier. So, why are people off of him…again? Sproles being overlooked isn’t new; it’s been happening for years. Let’s look at how Sproles has finished compared to his draft position over the years. Drafts data below are from MyFantasyLeague and represent all 12-team, PPR leagues (no mock drafts) that drafted on August 1 or later.
From 2008 to 2016, Sproles has finished nearly 15 places higher than his draft position. Not only does he outperform his draft ranking nearly yearly (the exceptions being 2012 and 2013, when drafters actually valued him properly), but people never seem to believe that his finishes are indicative of his skill set. From 2008 to drafts happening this year, drafters are taking him on average nearly 11 spots lower than his previous year’s finish. In the past three years this has been even more pronounced. Despite finishing no lower than the #29 PPR RB since 2009, drafters have taken him no earlier than 45th in the past three years. That dropped to 50th last year, and 58th this year.
Frankly, I have no way to explain why people continue to undervalue the former Kansas State product. Yes, he’s old by NFL standards. We’ve seen here that each year after age 30 don’t really matter on their own, though. Is it durability? Sproles has played an average of 15.3 games from 2008 to 2016. The only year he missed more than 3 games was 2006, when he missed the year with a broken leg. That’s 11 years ago. Are people worried about touches? Sproles does have over 1,800 touches in his career, but that’s only 76th on the career list. In comparison, LeSean McCoy (43rd) has nearly 2,300 and Adrian Peterson (29th) has nearly 2,700. Sproles has had 643 touches since he’s turned 30 according to Pro Football Reference, 34th on the career list, averaging just a hair over 160 per year. Are people worried that he will suddenly lose touches this season?
This is the only reason I see that could possible deter me or another drafter, but it’s not a strong one. It is fairly safe to say that LeGarrette Blount represents a more concrete RB1 to compete with than did Ryan Mathews. Both backs came into the league in 2010. In that time, both have rushed for just over 5,000 yards and 4.4 yards per carry. However, Blount has played in 14 more game than Mathews and rushed for 10 more TDs. The fact that he can actually stay on the field makes him more of a threat than Mathews to Sproles.
The former Patriot broke out for 1,161 yards on 299 carries and a league-leading 18 rushing TDs last year. While these numbers are excellent, do they really detract from where Sproles will be involved? There has been some chatter about Blount being used in the passing game. But is a guy with 46 career catches going to scare me from using Sproles, a guy who has caught that many passes in a season six times? Nope.
Sproles is the clear RB2 on the team and will, barring injury, be in the game as a passing down back regularly. This is where he makes the most impact. Even if Blount were to catch 20-30 passes (a HUGE stretch), Sproles’ usage isn’t just going to drop off. Who’s behind him? Smallwood? He may not even make the final 53. Donnel Pumphrey seems to have already passed Smallwood on the depth chart. Is he a threat? Potentially, but Sproles is still healthy and effective, so I simply cannot see Pederson moving away from what works. The more likely scenario is that if Pumphrey takes over Sproles’ role next year after Sproles likely retires.
For argument’s sake, let’s pretend that Blount catches some passes, targets are swallowed up by newcomers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, and Sproles drops to his low in each statistical category for each year going back to 2008 (not including returns). If this were to happen, he’d have 29 catches ,612 total yards, and 2 TDs. This would still equate to 102.2 FP, which would have been good for PPR RB48 last year. Even pretending Sproles to be at his worst, he would still finish 10 places higher than his current MFL draft position and 6 places higher than his FF Calculator position. I expect him to finish no worse than a low-end RB3 in PPR settings.
To make a long story short (TOO LATE)…Don’t let a reliable Tank rust on the sidelines…
DRAFT SPROLES EARLIER!!