Gerald Herbert, File, Associated Press
METAIRIE, La. — Darren Sproles had no idea he'd be such a central part of the Saints' offense when he first arrived in New Orleans — not that he's complaining.
"I was thinking that my job would just be the third downs," said Sproles, who was always a big-play threat with his only other NFL team, the San Diego Chargers, but was rarely one of the featured players in their offense.
"It's an adjustment," Sproles continued. "I like my role, though."
Even by the lofty standards of Sean Payton and Drew Brees, the Saints are looking better offensively than usual.
New Orleans leads the NFL in offense with an average of 436.9 yards, which has them on pace for 6,990 yards. That would not only eclipse the previous franchise high of 6,571 in 2008, but also would be second in NFL history, behind only the 2000 St. Louis Rams (7,075).
And one of the biggest differences between this Saints offense and the previous five in the Payton-Brees era is Sproles.
"I have to give Darren Sproles a lot of credit," Brees said. "He's been a big part of" the surge in offensive production.
Sproles leads the Saints in rushing with 348 yards on 51 carries, and average of 6.8 yards per carry. His longest run from scrimmage has been 35 yards and he has two touchdowns rushing. Sproles' 60 receptions rank second on the club behind only tight end Jimmy Graham's 62. Sproles has 448 yards and three TDs receiving.
His rushing total is already a single-season high in his seven-year career, and he needs only 73 more yards receiving in the next six games to set a new season-high in that category.
Never mind that Sproles, with his 635 yards on kickoff returns and 173 yards and a touchdown on punt returns, leads the NFL with 1,604 total yards, 166 more than Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown, who ranks second.
Sproles and the Saints will be back in action before a national audience on Monday night, when New Orleans hosts the New York Giants.
The Saints snapped up the 5-foot-6 Sproles from the free-agent market the same day they traded Reggie Bush to Miami. Sproles agreed to a four-year deal worth about $14 million, and quickly was given a role in the Saints offense that is similar to the one Bush had. Sproles even was given Bush's old locker at Saints headquarters.
While Sproles appears to be an upgrade over Bush, he seems uncomfortable with such direct comparisons.
"Reggie's a great player, so when I get compared to him it feels kind of good, but you've just got to make your own name for yourself," he said.
Brees, meanwhile, said he's not sure any team had a better free-agent signing than the Saints had with Sproles.
"It would be hard to find. Look at his productivity," Brees said. "Within the framework of what we do offensively, he can do everything. We ask him to do a lot and it's never too much for him. There's not a guy that I have more trust in with protection, with catching the football out of the backfield, giving the ball to him in critical running situations. Whatever it may be, the guy is a ball player and I'm glad he's on my team."
When Sproles first arrived in training camp, Brees mentioned he had worked out with his former Chargers teammate in San Diego during the offseason and had been in the running back's ear about keeping New Orleans in mind if the Saints decided to part ways with Bush.
While Sproles' speed on the perimeter was no secret, he has also shown he can run inside, which he said is his preference. He also has not been afraid to lower his shoulder on defenders who dwarf him.
"I just got to switch it up sometimes because they get so used to me moving and stuff," Sproles said. "They'd never think I can just" power straight into a tackler.
While Payton said his current offense may go down as the most productive statistically, he's not sure he'd call it his best ever.
"Whether or not this is the best offense we've had is to be determined really," Payton said. "You always go back to where you won. In '09 we won and had success."
What is clear is that the Saints' offense is atop the league now, and Sproles is a big reason why.
"He's played a huge role in what we've done. He's added an element of speed and quickness in space. He's a threat as a receiver and I think he's a very accomplished runner," Payton said. "He gives us a good mix, a good blend and gives us a lot of different options that we try to take advantage of."
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