If the Vikings are sincerely committed to replacing the dynamic skillset that Percy Harvin offers, how can they do it?
It is unlikely that the Vikings will find another Percy Harvin. With a unique set of talents that allowed Harvin to be the only receiver in the MVP conversation after eight weeks (not even the record-setting Calvin Johnson could compete in the conversations NFL analysts had about potential MVPs).
It's easy to see why Harvin is so well regarded by NFL observers:
Harvin has make-you-miss ability, both because of his elusiveness and deceptive strength. But he's more than that. What he can do would fill a scouting report with incredulities. It's difficult to cover his accomplishments without delving into hyperbole, but there's so much about Harvin that makes him an impact player that will make him difficult to replace.
- In 2011, Percy Harvin nearly set a single-season record for most return yards per kickoff return in post-merger history with 32.5. He was behind Jim Duncan (35.4), Duriel Harris (32.9), Ron J. Brown (32.8) and Cecil Turner (32.7). None of those marks were set after 1985.
- In 2012, he demolished that record, with 35.9 yards per kick return. Yes, his yards per kick return average in 2012 was higher than any other player in post-merger history and only behind Gale Sayers (37.7) and Travis Williams (41.1) when including pre-merger records.
- To continue with that comparison, Percy Harvin and Gale Sayers are the only two players in NFL history with 20+ scrimmage touchdowns and 5+ kick return touchdowns in their first four NFL seasons.
- This isn't a relic of recent rules. Of active players, the closest were Joe McKnight's 2011 (31.6 yards), Bernard Scott's 2009 (31.5 before kickoff rule changes) and Jacoby Jones' 2012 (30.7).
- Since entering the league, Harvin has had more yards from scrimmage than all but 30 players in the NFL. Only eight of those played more games.
- Since entering the league, Harvin has had the third-most all-purpose yards, despite playing fewer games than the top six players.
- No wide receiver has more all-purpose yards in their first four years in NFL history. He has 7168 all-purpose yards, and DeSean Jackson comes in second, with 1460 yards fewer than Harvin at 5708. The rest of the top eight all played fewer games.
- Only one player in NFL history has had more all-purpose yards per game in their first four years than Harvin—Terry Metcalf in 1973-76. This also means no wide receiver has had more all-purpose yards per game than Harvin. Harvin has 132.7, while DeSean Jackson (second place) has 95.
- Only eight players in NFL history have more yards from scrimmage per game in their first four years than Harvin, and only one of them was drafted in the last five years (DeSean Jackson).
- If Percy Harvin retired today, he would hold the record among all retired players for most all-purpose yards per game.
- Only two receivers in the history of the NFL—and none of them after the merger—have accrued more rushing yards. He has 683. The next post-merger player is Peter Warrick, with 341.
- Harvin led the league in YAC/Reception with 8.7 in 2012. He was 7th in 2011, 4th in 2010, and 12th his rookie year.
- Remember that Tennessee game? That has to go in here somewhere. Wow. What a game.
A scouting report would nearly be redundant; we all know who Percy is. Harvin has preternatural short-area quickness and can move in any direction on a dime. He has extremely refined route-running, fights for the ball, almost always comes down with the ball (third-highest catch rate in the NFL), has sure hands (second-lowest drop rate in the NFL, after Jason Avant), game-breaking speed, and the highest motor of any receiver in the NFL. He adjusts well to the ball in the air and has extraordinary vision.
He stills needs a fully developed route tree, isn't the best at catching the ball in traffic and needs to work on his release (a surprising, if small, deficiency in the game of a receiver so well known for yards after the catch), but these minor quibbles shouldn't take away from the fact that he's clearly one of the best receivers in the NFL.
If Harvin continues on this trajectory, he'll end up with a resume that should put him in the Hall of Fame.
Harvin is unique. There is no player like him, and fans would do well to understand that. "Replacing Harvin" means finding another playmaker, not a Harvin clone.
That said, there are several players who can emulate a number of his skills that will be available in the draft or currently exist in the NFL.
Of the draft-eligible players, there are a few who correctly draw comparisons to Percy Harvin.
The best that anybody could do to replace Harvin is Tavon Austin. That shouldn't come as much of a surprise to anyone who has been following the draft, and the comparison that several analysts have made is apt (as lazy as player comparisons tend to be).
Tavon's Night (Tavon Austin vs. Oklahoma 2012 Highlights) (via dougitydog)
Obviously a stylized highlight video isn't going to tell you everything you need to know about a prospect, but that's not the point—it's not coaches' film; it's exciting film.
In my wide receiver combine scores, Tavon Austin ended up with a (projected, based off of a missing workout) 5.18, which means he is neither a red flag nor likely undervalued. In the same system, Harvin scored a 7.7.
The scouting report on Austin sounds a lot like Harvin's: he's "lightning-quick and agile" with fluidity and easy change-of-direction skills. He has excellent vision, which allows him to see cutback lanes in the running game or find seams to run through in the return game. He has a veteran sense of reading defenses, which allows him to make smart adjustments in-route or before the snap.
More than that, his body control allows him to sell routes, double-moves and hide intentions well enough to fake out defensive backs and generate separation. That body control translates to ball skills, as the Mountaineer does a superb job of adjusting to the ball in the air. He's explosive out of cuts and when grabbing the ball behind the line.
In fact, Austin has the highest percentage of targets behind the line of scrimmage of the draft eligible receivers, with 33.93% of his targets coming from screen passes (or pistol dumpoffs that are functionally runs). 39.5% of Harvin's targets in 2012 came from behind the line of scrimmage.
Over the course of his three-year college career, Percy Harvin put together 3781 yards from scrimmage, while Austin pulled together 4444 yards from scrimmage in his four years.
Austin has a worse time in traffic than Harvin, and doesn't display the strength that Harvin uses so naturally. You wouldn't want him running in between the tackles, for example. The 10-15 pound difference is a big one, and Austin is also an inch shorter. He has a great catch rate and drop rate (lowest drop rate in the draft class, as far as I can tell) like Harvin but just didn't take over games the same way.
The single greatest comparison to Harvin from Austin may be the fact that both share the quality that is so rare among players in any era: belief. On 3rd and 6, if Harvin gets the ball two yards behind the line of scrimmage, you just believe he's going to do something amazing with it—you have faith that the ball will cross the down marker. Sometimes, there isn't a doubt in your mind that it'll happen.
And he delivers.
Watching Austin play at the college level evokes the same feeling. And that might be why he's the nearest available player to Percy Harvin. A talent like Harvin's comes once in a generation, but there is a very good chance that this football generation is going to get spoiled.
Perhaps the NFL won't see another Harvin, but they could see the next best thing in Tavon Austin.
The next best comparison to Percy Harvin is Cordarrelle Patterson.
That may strike many of you as odd, but it's true. He plays a lot like a big, unrefined, Percy Harvin.
Consider (language warning for the kiddies):
Ultimate Cordarrelle Patterson Highlights (via TheVikingsworld2011)
Patterson's highlight reel has a lot of Harvin-esque play. He runs out of the backfield, takes screens to the house and changes direction faster than defenders can keep track.
In most draft rankings, Cordarrelle Patterson is the top-ranked receiver. While this isn't something I can get on board with (He's up there because of "upside," a not-so-oblique reference to athleticism—he ranks anywhere between third and sixth in my athleticism rankings depending on his Pro Day showing), he certainly is talented in some ways.
First thing's first however: Patterson only has one year of top-level college production. Given that it was over 1000 yards of production from scrimmage (and an additional 772 yards in returns), it's not bad. Still, he doesn't have the pedigree of success that keeps this analogy watertight. He also had seven fewer touchdowns than Harvin did in their final year at their respective institutions.
His college stats don't match the play style Harvin has either. Only 8 percent of his passes were screens. In all fairness, he had more yards per screen play than any other receiver in the draft (12), but a low sample size means that people shouldn't read too much into it (for reference, Austin has 5.8 yards per screen and Harvin had 9.5).
So, besides the fact that Patterson runs as well as catches (778 yards catching, 308 running) and has some great short-area quickness, what else does he share with Harvin?
First, Patterson exhibits body control throughout the process. Just like Harvin and Austin (although not nearly as well as either), he can sell routes and disguise his intentions at the release and at the stem of the route. Once the ball is in the air, Patterson does a very good job (again, better than most, but not better than Austin and Harvin) adjusting to the ball in the air and boxing out defenders while maintaining positioning (say, on the sidelines).
When running, he's very difficult to take down, even when defenders have their hands on him—being 6'2" and 216 pounds helps him do that. Like the two other players mentioned, he generally makes the first person miss and cuts against the flow of the defense
Unfortunately for the comparison, Patterson's overall YAC isn't nearly as great as Austin's or Harvin's either. With 5.33 yards after the catch on average, he is a middling talent at creating new yards, while Austin leads the draft class by an entire yard (7.3 yards after the catch per catch).
There are a number of other significant talent differences. The first, and most obvious, talent difference is in route-running. Patterson doesn't have the same versatility as Harvin simply because he's not a very good route-runner at all. He's sloppy at the break and slows down far too often to be effective in a late-breaking play. He also doesn't high-point the ball or come back to it very well.
Beyond that, he's never represented the reliable receiving option that Harvin does. His drop rate was the second-highest of the nine draft-eligible receivers that Second Round Stats looked at, with over eight percent of catchable balls falling to the ground. It seems like he has not been able to turn his excellent body control into receptions.
Harvin had a small problem with this earlier in his career, when he had a middling rate of drops, near six percent. The issue with Harvin was similar to what Patterson's issue is right now—an inability to concentrate and thinking too many moves ahead.
Even so, Patterson lets a lot of balls hit the ground, much more than would warrant a reasonable comparison to Harvin.
A final, big, difference for Patterson is that he does not possess the same vision as a runner or returner that Harvin does. While he is a patient player who likes to let the play develop before running forward, this doesn't mean he is setting up his blocks or reading holes. Far too often in college, he relied on getting to one edge or the other to outrun defenses and has been a skittish east-west runner. He has not displayed an ability to correctly read holes and seams, nor does he possess the one-cut/cutback type of running (despite his love of cutting in and out of holes) that make options and zone blocking such a huge asset to Tavon and Percy.
As a way to close up the Patterson comparison, it should be noted that his height and weight might make him a player with more "upside" than Harvin (which seems like a reasonable argument) but he is much further behind in his development as a player. Just like Harvin with the Vikings, Patterson has not been a deep threat for Tennessee despite his 40-time and natural speed..
He can't take the top off of defenses or generate separation downfield. Only four percent of his targets came deep for a quarterback that threw over 15% of his passes deep downfield (with a completion percentage over 30% on those passes). Part of this might be because of rawness, but another part (one that doesn't show up in the 40, but does on film) is that he simply slows down when going deep.
Like Jeffrey Demps, Goodwin is a player who literally has Olympic speed and has found a way to translate that into NFL speed. Like you would expect of any short-distance runner (he was a participant in the long jump at the Olympics), he's got fantastic burst and separation speed.
More intriguing is that he doesn't have a lot of bad sprinter habits show up when he plays football.
Marquise Goodwin 2012 Senior Highlights (via godzillatron24)
By the way, did you know that all those times Goodwin runs in front of the quarterback to receiver the pitch forward instead of receiving it laterally or from behind, it counts as a pass?
That means David Ash's 67.3% completion rate should probably be taken with a grain of salt.
Goodwin makes the list because of his versatility, but misses out on the Harvin comparison by miles for a number of other reasons. As a runner, Goodwin was able to rack up 491 yards from scrimmage his senior year, 151 of those yards on the ground.
As a runner and returner, Goodwin possesses better vision that Cordarrelle Patterson, but doesn't have the level of vision that Harvin and Austin both possess. He isn't as patient as any of the other players I've discussed, but he does know how to use his blocks and burst through holes.
Unsurprisingly, he's lacking in a number of fundamental receiver skills that the other talents on this board already have. The first and most obvious is his extremely raw route-running. He'll round off corners, run imprecise routes to the stem, break at the wrong point, etc. Goodwin is one of those players who you'll find running five yards off his route deep downfield, making him not only difficult to target, but easy to defend.
That makes it more difficult for him to box out defenders, and he's very bad at winning the position battle when the ball is in the air. Like the other receivers, he can adjust to the ball in the air to make the catch, but he still has work to do in order to adjust to the defender.
Excellent body control in general is a trait he shares with the other players on this list. Not only does he have ball adjustment skills, he's aware of the sideline and can angle his feet to stay inbounds on those rough outside catches. He maintains balance throughout the catch, and will generally come down with the ball.
That body control doesn't extend to the process of the release or route-running (as discussed above). Like every other receiver being discussed, he can disguise his intentions well, but he doesn't have the strength, technique or leverage to beat press coverage off the line. He plays too high and his hands move too slowly off the snap, so he can get jammed or slowed down at the line. These are not issues we generally see with Harvin, Austin or Patterson.
Unlike Austin, he does do a better job extending to catch the ball, but it's a useless skill to get better in without getting better at positioning. Nevertheless, while he's not reliable running a variety of routes, he's a versatile player that can be used in multiple ways. He just will not have the impact that other swiss army knives have had.
He seems to be working on his issues, however. He did a much better job at the Senior Bowl generating separation, running more precise routes and beating press coverage (he dipped lower against contact and brought his hands up quickly). Whether or not this improvement shows up in game situations is yet to be seen. He certainly has a lot to prove given that he produced less than 2000 yards from scrimmage in his four years in the NCAA.
Riddick was recrutied to Notre Dame as a running back, was converted to wide receiver, then became the bell-cow back of the Notre Dame offense after reverting back to running back. This sort of slotback capability is exactly what people are looking for with Percy Harvin.
Turning Points - Theo Trucks Trojans (via NotreDameAthletics)
While that video does showcase a lot of attributes people tend to like in Percy Harvin—burst, quickness and the ability to shake defenders by planting and cutting in unpredictable directions—Riddick does not have the capability of performing the same role as Harvin did for the Vikings.
Despite playing as a receiver for part of his time with the Golden Domers, his route-running is extremely rough, rounded and limited. He isn't a threat to run more than a few routes, doesn't set up his defensive backs and loses the positioning battle through the weakness of his receiving game. He cannot maintain separation when split out wide.
In addition his hands in route are poor. While he's an excellent back at catching out of the backfield, he loses the capability to catch passes when confronted with the much more complex responsibilities of running in a receiver route. Most of his pass-catching this year (370 yards through the air) came from wheel routes or checkdowns for big gain instead of out wide.
Other than his poor ability to secure the ball, he at least can adjust well to the ball in the air and even has the ability to box out other defenders for the pass. If he was more able to reliably haul the ball in, he could be a candidate to play the Harvin role in an offense. I expect an NFL team to do this because it is an effective position to have a competent player in, but the success should not be nearly the same.
Williams could have the highest receiving yardage total of any FBS running back with 697 yards through the air and he complemented that with another 1512 yards on the ground. 2209 yards on 263 touches is incredibly impressive.
Kerwynn Williams 2012 Utah State Senior Highlights (via USUNLV)
Unfortunately, most of Williams' receiving yards come in routes out of the backfield and not often enough when split wide to be considered versatile enough to reprise Harvin's role in the Vikings' offense.
When split wide, Williams gets blown up by defensive backs in press coverage and can't release in a way that gets him easy yards. His route-running skills could do with work, yes, but his inability to set up his routes, outposition defensive backs and create space really make him an occasional pass-catcher when split wide instead of a threat to make plays from anywhere on the field.
Beyond that, his agility and lateral quickness is lacking compared to a player like Harvin, despite a similar build. He's a shorter than Harvin and a little lighter, which is probably why his receiver athleticism score came to a 5.04.
The bottom line is that if Williams attempted to play a style of football reminiscent of Percy Harvin, he would not be a YAC guy. Like Riddick, this doesn't mean he's a bad player, simply not fit for this specific role.
The running back whose game most closely resembles Harvin's in this year's draft might be Robbie Rouse, who CBS rates as the 27th best running back in the class and gives an undrafted free agent grade.
Robbie Rouse vs Oregon 2012 (via JmpasqDraftjedi)
There's nothing in Rouse's game that makes it obvious as to why he's been given an undrafted free agent grade, but he's honestly too small to be an every-down running back.
At 5'6" and 190 pounds (meaning he's probably short, not small), he really struggles to power through bigger players or be a reliable pass-protector. This size problem, and his terrible 40-yard dash (which doesn't seem to show up much on film) gave him a receiver prospect athleticism score of 1.9, which is a red flag.
In many ways, that's not as big of a problem as you might think, although it is probably a reason teams should wait until the seventh round or for free agency to go and get him. For the Harvin role, extraordinary size and deep speed isn't important. His 10-yard split was a somewhat slow, but by no means glacial, 1.64 seconds (Harvin's was lightning-fast, however, at 1.47 seconds—fourth fastest in my study).
His agility scores were also not mind-blowing. An average-looking (for a receiver) 6.97 seconds in the three cone overshadowed an otherwise good 4.25 seconds in the short-shuttle.
But his play on the field is exciting. If given the right role, he could be a difference-maker, even though he wouldn't have quite the impact of Percy Harvin.
His 1925 yards from scrimmage are extremely impressive, even after adjusting for the level of competition he was up against. With 435 of those yards coming out of the passing game, it's clear he can provide an additional element to NFL teams that many don't currently have.
Like Harvin, he plays much bigger than his size, and is willing to take 250-pound linebackers head on. Sometimes, he even wins against those linebackers. He plays with grit and a hard-nosed running style that is complemented by his ability to play low to the ground. He has a shocking capability of generating yards after contact, and it's translated into yards after the catch when asked to play on screens or in route. The CBS scouting report on him may explain why he's a hidden gem that could end up playing in Harvin's role for an NFL team in the future:
Strengths: Runs determined, motivated and low to the ground. Very good plant-and-go quickness to put his foot in the ground and explode in any direction. Smooth hips and good foot quickness, showing fluidity in/out of his cuts.
Follows his blocks well and uses his size to his advantage, making it tough for tackles to square him up and hiding behind blockers. Presses the hole and plays bigger than he appears, setting up his moves well. Will slither out of tackles with his quickness and determination. Finishes runs and doesn't quit with a workhorse mentality. Solid build and has proven to be durable with the ability to take a lot of hits.
Weaknesses: Diminutive stature and lacks ideal power for the position. Lacks great body strength and can be pulled down or slowed by simple arm tackles. Looks maxed out physically and won't be able to add much more bulk. Quicker than fast and lacks a second gear downfield, allowing him to be caught from behind. Too patient at times and needs to show more decisive explosion between the tackles. What's his role at the next level?
Most of his weaknesses are exactly the weaknesses you would expect out of a slotback, and not ones that should concern people too much when looking for the next Harvin. He really is impressive when he sinks his hips to gain time and leverage against bigger players looking to make the tackle. It's a different cutting style than Harvin (whose feet do most of the work when changing direction, instead of his legs and hips), but nearly as effective.
The issues with his patience, deep speed and explosiveness between tackles limit his opportunities, but are neither ones that should encourage NFL teams not to negotiate a solid UDFA contract.
Out of the rest of the class, established pass-catchers like Joseph Randle, Giovanni Bernard and Ray Graham simply do not have the experience lining up out wide to compare to what Harvin does. Of the rest, Graham might be the closest, given his impressive YAC ability, lateral agility and change-of-direction capability. Still, none of them have shown the capability to consistently beat defensive backs in the passing game, and shouldn't be forced into a role that they are not familiar with unless a coach sees something that he hasn't put on film yet.
Current NFL Players
There are, of course, a number of NFL players right now that have been put into roles or exhibit the ability to emulate a lot of what Percy Harvin does. Like the draft prospects, none of them seem to have the ability to do it at quite the level that Percy does it at, but fulfilling that role might still be worth looking into.
The first such player is almost too easy to bring up—comparisons between him and Harvin are rampant.
It's not a lazy comparison—Cobb may be more like Harvin than anyone else in the National Football League. While Harvin started his career with 925 yards from scrimmage and Cobb with 380, Cobb has quickly caught up, putting up 1086 yards from scrimmage in 2012 and and additional 964 yards in the return game.
This next part is a Packers highlight video, so watch out:
Randall Cobb Packers Highlights (via Drew Brown)
It's pretty evident that a lot of Cobb's receiving yardage comes about as a result of how defenses play the Packers and the pure skill of Aaron Rodgers, but his running and return yardage can't be so easily dismissed.
Cobb does a great job using the space he has to secure the ball and positions himself well to box out defensive backs, but doesn't have the route versatility that Harvin has. At the same time, he has more versatility as a returner and regularly returns punts as well as kickoffs.
In many ways, Cobb has all of the same talents as Harvin, simply turned down a notch. The biggest difference between Cobb and Harvin is in route-running. Not only does Cobb have a smaller armory of routes to draw from, he still needs to execute the routes he does run a little better. He's used to relying on his athleticism to make plays, and so still rounds off routes and needs more precision in his footwork at the break.
At the release, he needs to beat press coverage and do just a little bit more to disguise his intentions. He's been doing work to increase the capability his hands have at beating defensive backs, but he still can be moved around a little too often.
He hasn't solved his drop problem, either, and has the seventh-worst drop rate among receivers with over 100 targets (12.09 percent).
Still, hes explosive after the catch, and ranked 19th in the NFL in yards after the catch per reception in 2012 (5.8 YAC/reception). He's improved his running game to match, too, with over 7 yards after contact per attempt, among the highest in the league. He is one of two receivers to end with more rushing yards than Percy Harvin did in 2012, and he did it on fewer carries.
Naturally, Cobb has been doing this in a different context, and runs out of shotgun formations a bit more often, usually on draw plays. Still, its impressive.
His athletic skill set is very much like Harvin's, with fantastic short-area quickness and scary speed. He can get up to top speed relatively quickly, and it is difficult for defenders to catch up. With that, he pairs great vision to read his blocks and find places to sit against coverage, although he does have much more to improve in both of these areas.
Cobb's body looks like it's more prone to injury (in fact, a shoulder shot in the San Francisco game took him out), but if he stays healthy and Harvin doesn't, don't be surprised if Cobb overtakes Harvin in the conversation as the most dynamic player in the NFL.
This size and strength difference between Cobb and Harvin also enable Harvin to do more out of the backfield, because it's easier to risk exposure with different types of plays than Harvin. Still, Cobb currently has a better track record with injury, and that might make him ultimately more valuable, even if he isn't as impactful.
Unfortunately, the Vikings have no capability to acquire Cobb. He's in year three of a four-year deal with the Packers, and they are unlikely to trade him:
If I'm Green Bay or Atlanta today I look at what San Fran and Seattle did and immediately think about being more aggressive.— Ian Kenyon (@IanKenyonNFL) March 11, 2013
There are other players in the NFL, however, that are more likely to be available to the Vikings should they wish to fulfill the Harvin role.
Hawkins has recently emerged as a hot name among fantasy addicts in deep leagues because he always has the chance to do something exciting with the ball.
Still, he only had 563 yards from scrimmage and 30 of those yards came from rushing attempts. He does share similarities with Harvin regardless.
This highlight video is terrible, incidentally, but that's life. Ignore the fact that it starts out with a Madden clip:
Andrew Hawkins highlights (via Adamspaze98)
Yes, most of those highlights are from him absolutely demolishing the CFL when given more space than an NFL field.
But he seriously is one of the nimblest players in the NFL. His prospect athleticism grade was merely 6.4 and his NFL athleticism grade is even lower (a red-flag inducing 1.4), but those are both the result of a low bench press total (9) and size. For this specific role, only one of those numbers matter: the bench press. His overall physical ability is lacking, but he does have physical talent in a lot of places where it counts.
He's not as strong as Cobb or Harvin, but he does find ways to use his stop-start ability to make defenders miss. Hawkins won't run between the tackles like Cobb or Harvin, but he still presents a threat in the run game, and could be used in the right offense to line up in the backfield to make big plays.
He has running back-like vision when setting up blocks on screens and when returning (something he did in the CFL and at Toledo), although his ability to hit the gap/seam when pushing forward isn't as explosive as the NFC North pair.
The only way that he is better than Cobb is the way he plucks the football. Not only are his hands more reliable, he does a better job creating space against defensive backs when fighting for the ball. Of course, when the ball is contested, he is much, much worse.
While he can make defenders miss and avoid tackles with relative ease, he does go down easier than the other two receivers. Hawkins can play physically when he wants, but doesn't grind for yards with the ball in his hands. Relying solely on agility, he was able to generate 6.9 yards after the catch per reception—ninth best in the league and better than Cobb by a full yard.
But when he's hit, he goes down. As a runner, he averaged a paltry one yard after contact, although he did average five yards a carry.
He's missing a lot of elements of his game that make comparisons to Harvin a bit wanting—he's a very poor route-runner and needs to display better intuition reading defenses—but his physical capability should give teams the ability to place him in the slotback role and watch him learn and develop the role.
Hawkins will be a restricted free agent at the end of the 2013 season. The Bengals are looking for more receivers and like Hawkins, so it is unlikely the Vikings would be able to trade for him this season. It would also very likely not be worth it.
The original do-anything player, Darren Sproles has been as electric as he has been frustrating. Sproles only had 48 rushing attempts in 2012, although he did end up with more receptions with 75.
Even though Sproles is 30, it might be time for him to redefine his role as a receiver who runs instead of a running back who catches. More instructive might be his 2011 season, when he set a record for single-season all-purpose yards (be warned, Saints highlights):
Darren Sproles Highlights 2011-2012 ( feat. Hopsin, Swizz) (via WhoDatNation42)
Sproles might be available in a trade, but it is unlikely. His contract expires after the 2014 season, but he isn't owed too much money. Given his explosiveness, I doubt that the New Orleans Saints would be willing to trade Sproles away, even though they have one of the deepest running back corps in the league.
No one doubts Sproles' agility. In fact, he may be one of the few players in the NFL with more small-space capability than Percy Harvin. Coming out of the draft, he had a nearly impossible short shuttle time of 3.96, a 10-yard split of 1.55 and bench pressed 225 pound an absurd 23 times.
Despite a slower 10-yard split, Sproles might have the fastest acceleration in the NFL; his burst is second to none and he explodes through seams and out of holes. With that, his lateral quickness is enviable for nearly any player. He doesn't make a decision until the very last moment and rarely betrays his movements with subtle tip-offs. He's one of the most sudden players in the NFL.
He has lined up in the slot dozens of times and runs receiver routes, not just the traditional halfback routes that put running backs into the flat. While nearly all of his targets fall within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, he still has the capability to sink his hips, change direction and explode out of cuts like an full-time wide receiver.
Sproles has a lot of trouble with man coverage or serious coverage attempts given his size (he's 5'6"... like Robbie Rouse) and he still needs to do more to beat jams, but he knows how to find space and ends up open more often than not.
While his route tree never fully developed—he usually sticks to slants, sticks, digs, ins and outs (along with curl/comeback routes) he is dangerous catching the ball and is good at locating the ball in the air.
Unfortunately, his drop rate (12 percent in 2012, 9 percent in 2011) prevents him from being a consistently impactful receiver, but his full skill set matches that of Harvin, if to different degrees. He's a far better runner and a far worse receiver, but still can do most of the things Harvin has been asked to do in his gadget role with the Vikings. Given that he led the league in 2011 in yards after contact per attempt with 3.7, it's fair to say he knows how to generate yardage despite pursuit—much like Harvin.
They are both deceptively strong and wickedly difficult to tackle, even if their fortes are generally opposite one another. Both have set records in their multiple fields and dominate the yards from scrimmage and all-purpose yards statistics. Sproles is a lot like a mirror-Harvin, and it's easy to see why the Saints would be loathe to let him go.
If the Saints were willing to deal, it might be improve the offense enough to justify the cost. But he is 30.
Is it worth it?
The bigger question is, after creating an offense that revolved around the binary stars of Percy Harvin and Adrian Peterson, is it worth the effort and price to replace Harvin and retain the offense? Aside from one draft prospect and two current NFL players—one of whom is 30—there are no real analogues to Percy Harvin. Two of the players will be difficult to get and the third will cost a high draft pick.
Bill Musgrave has a lot of faults, but his strengths include profoundly solid play design, innovation and creativity. He knows how to create and design offensive sets that utilize the many talents the Vikings have, even if he doesn't do the best at calling the right plays at the right time in games.
Adding a dynamic playmaker like Sproles or Tavon Austin would more fully take advantage of Musgrave's skills, even at a fairly significant cost. On the other hand, one of the positives to having an innovate offensive coordinator is being able to design schemes around the talent on-hand and not requiring as much to find players with specific skills to fit the puzzle.
An adaptive plan is always better than one that relies on acquiring talent that you don't already have.
In the end, it's pretty clear that Harvin's skills might never be replicated by a player in purple in this era, so it might be more advisable to move on. After all, it's pretty hard to find a comparable player.