Not pictured: Darren Sproles. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
I will admit to you guys that I am really interested to see what Norv Turner and Philip Rivers can do with Eddie Royal in the San Diego Chargers' modern Air Coryell style of offense. I suspect we'll see at least a few highlight reel big plays in 2012. I'll be surprised if Royal doesn't have an impact on the way teams defend against the Chargers. With his physical tools, Turner's play calling and Rivers throwing to him, Royal could be very dangerous. What he wont' be is Darren Sproles.
The constant comparisons to the former Charger running back have simply gotten out of hand. Sproles was fast. Royal is fast. Sproles had a knack for making defenders miss. Royal has a knack for making defenders miss. Sproles starred on special teams. Royal stars on special teams. Sproles was a tremendous pass blocker. Royal will hopefully never be called upon to block. Sproles could line up in the backfield and be dangerous taking a handoff and running off tackle. Royal will probably line up in the backfield for a handful of gimmicky plays to give defenses a different look, but is unlikely to take more than a handful of handoffs from Rivers all season. Sproles consistently drew double coverage running routes out of the backfield and created one on one matchups for players like Antonio Gates and Vincent Jackson. Royal will need to prove he can win one on one matchups before he starts getting anything approaching that treatment.
There are some similarities to the two players' games and Eddie Royal will, in fact, be asked to provide some of what Darren Sproles brought to the Chargers. I'm not denying this at all, but Chargers fans need to be realistic or they're going to end up very disappointed. In 2008, 2009 and 2010 Darren Sproles produced more as a receiver than Eddie Royal did from 2008 to 2010.* Royal's best season over that stretch could not match Sproles' worst season during that same time and this is only factoring in Sproles' contributions as a receiver. The point I want you to take away here is that Sproles isn't just a different player from Royal, he's a much better one.
So, does that mean Royal can't be an effective, even impactful, player for the San Diego Chargers' offense? It does not. Nobody else in the NFL is a Darren Sproles. At 5'6", 180 lbs with the sort of freakish strength, speed, quickness and hands he possesses, Sproles is a unique player. Asking any player to come in and replace everything he could do is asking to be bitterly disappointed.
What does that leave us with? Eddie Royal is an exceptional punt returner. He's roughly an average receiver that has great speed and excels when given the chance to have the ball in space. Royal will make an immediate and substantial improvement to the Chargers' punt return unit. They haven't had a dynamic returner since Sproles left and in all honesty, I think most Chargers fans had grown tired of watching him field punts.**
In the one year where Royal's skills were actually utilized well, he was slightly below average on a per play basis. He has never played with a quarterback as good as Philip Rivers and has never been in a system that allowed him to truly shine. It's reasonable to expect this will be his best season as a professional.
Royal's speed and that of Robert Meachem's should help to open up underneath routes as well as the middle of the field for Gates. Royal is also the first legitimate slot receiver the Chargers have had in some time.*** His very presence on the field should make the rest of the offense more dynamic much like Sproles did although he'll do it in a different way.
Long story made short, Eddie Royal is a good player with some outstanding skills that should make the offense better, but he's no Darren Sproles. So, please, just stop making that comparison. Thank you.
*When measured by DYAR, a statistic from FootballOutsiders.com.
**Seriously, I think by the end I was holding my breath every time.
***Anybody else miss Eric Parker?