Michael Lombardo: Sproles' roles can be filled by others
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With a team as stacked from top to bottom as the Chargers, it is inevitable that some players will get more credit and recognition than they may deserve.
One such player is third-year offensive tackle Marcus McNeill. A Pro Bowler in each of his first two years, McNeill will be the first to tell you that he didn't deserve the recognition last year. While he has the physical tools to be a dominant, elite player for the next decade, McNeill has struggled with inconsistency at times. Until he can bring a consistent effort to the field every day, he will never live up to the general public's expectations for him.
An absolute Goliath of a man who only slipped to the second round of the 2006 draft due to concerns about a spinal ailment, McNeill has made A.J. Smith look brilliant by shaking off those worries and stepping in as an immediate starter despite having a broken hand. He played so well as a rookie that he received serious consideration as Offensive Rookie of the Year, which is quite the rare honor for an O-lineman.
However, offensive linemen are an anonymous bunch, and many players at that position manage to make the Pro Bowl every year on name alone. McNeill knows that he had a disappointing season by his standards last year, especially in a late-season match-up with the Tennessee Titans when he gave up three sacks to Kyle Vanden Bosch.
It's a good situation to be in when the Chargers' most overrated player is a Pro Bowler, but what makes it better is the fact that McNeill is using this as motivation to take his game to the next level this season in order to earn his next Pro Bowl selection on his own terms.
It's funny how one game can completely change the perception of a player, especially when that game takes place under the bright lights of Monday Night Football. Darren Sproles made the most of that venue last season, returning two kicks for scores against the Indianapolis Colts. Outside of that game, his season was mostly forgettable.
That Sproles broke loose against the Colts was not a coincidence. Indianapolis was missing half-a-dozen starters due to injury, forcing the backups into starting roles and new faces onto the kick-coverage teams. Sproles took advantage of the Colts' makeshift special teams and solidified his reputation in the process.
Despite those big returns, Sproles only ranked No. 9 in the league in kickoff return average (27.2 yards) amongst players with at least 10 returns. His punt returns weren't any more spectacular, as he ranked No. 13 in return average (9.5 yards) amongst players with double-digit returns.
What makes Sproles overrated is that he's one of the most replaceable players on the roster. Antonio Cromartie could replace him on kick returns; Cromartie has the better career kick-return average, 28.0 to 25.4. Buster Davis could supplant Sproles on punt returns; Davis has the stronger career punt-return average, 8.7 to 8.0.
And even though Sproles carved out a niche on offense last season, he can be replaced in that role, as well, with minimal drop-off. A.J. Smith fortified the backfield through the draft, which means Sproles will have to fight for time from scrimmage. Second-round pick Jacob Hester and fifth-round pick Marcus Thomas are ready to soak up the majority of LaDainian Tomlinson's leftovers.
Sproles is still a viable and explosive weapon. But, as his Pro Bowl alternate status from last season indicates, he is the most overrated player on the roster.
--Click here to learn which Chargers players are the most underrated.