METAIRIE — He was the star of the Saints’ preseason.
But now Saints rookie Travaris Cadet looks to be in the spotlight when the final score matters.
Darren Sproles, who set the NFL all-purpose yardage record last season, is out indefinitely with a broken hand, the team announced on Friday, and his kickoff return duties, plus possibly his versatile role in the backfield, are likely to be assumed by Cadet, a free agent from Appalachian State who earned a roster spot in the preseason by displaying precisely those skills.
“It’s a big blow to lose a guy like Darren who can do so many things,” Cadet, an undrafted free agent from Appalachian State, said after the Saints (2-5) completed practice for Monday night’s game against Philadelphia (3-4). “It kind of changes up the game plan a little bit.
“Right now, they’re telling me I’ll be pretty much doing what he did.”
That was more definitive than the Saints coaches were saying, either about Cadet, or Sproles, who, in addition to handling the team’s return duties, is the team’s third-leading rusher (117 yards) and receiver (39 receptions, 323 yards, four touchdowns).
Interim coach Joe Vitt would not even reveal which hand Sproles had broken (“Whichever hand you put down, you’d have a 50-50 chance of being right.”) or how it occurred, although it appears to have happened in last Sunday’s 34-14 loss to Denver since Sproles did not practice on Thursday, the team’s first day on the field since then.
Neither did Vitt specify Cadet would return kickoffs, although he averaged 25.3 yards on 10 returns in the preseason.
“If we wanted you to know, we’d let you go to practice,” Vitt told the media during his Friday briefing.
Vitt did say Sproles, who has not missed a game since 2007, has already had surgery and would be further evaluated next week.
That appears to make the return duties fall on Cadet, who with the exception of one play, at which he lined up at wide receiver, has been limited to special teams in the four games in which he was active.
“You want to be ready when your time comes,” Cadet said. “But I’ll leave that up to coach.”
Cadet certainly turned heads in the preseason. In addition to returning kickoffs, he rushed for 139 yards on 39 carries, second on the team and was the team’s receiving leader with 39 catches for 246 yards and two TDs.
74Cadet also had seven punt returns for a 4.1 yard average. But Lance Moore could assume those duties, as he did at times in the five years before last season when Sproles arrived.
“Darren’s a special guy,” offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael said. “Cadet had done some of those things (as a running back) in the preseason, but we’re going to have a few guys that pick up the slack.
“We have Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram. Next man up.”
The Saints’ plans also include third-year running back Chris Ivory, who has been inactive for five games and did not get on the field for the two he was.
Ivory, who last week had expressed dissatisfaction over his lack of playing time indicated Thursday he would not have opposed to being traded, but added, “It’s been real tough, but I’ve been looking at like they’ve been telling me to be looking at it and that my time is coming.”
Carmichael praised Ivory’s attitude, saying, “Chris has been patient. He’s been great.
“He’s been out at every practice, and he’s given us his all, his best effort. This will be a chance for him to get some opportunities.”
But an untested rookie and a between-the-tackles runner who has only one career reception are hardly prime replacement material for one of the league’s best multi-purpose players.
This season, Sproles ranks sixth in kickoff returns (28.7 per game, 3.4 above his career average) although his punt return average (6.5) is the second lowest of his seven-year career.
Losing Sproles also adds to the team’s running game woes.
The Saints are ranked 30th in rushing at 75.2 yards per game, down 57.7 yards from a year ago when they were sixth in the league and three linemen, tackle Jermon Bushrod and guards Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks (now with Tampa Bay) were named to the Pro Bowl.
“At the end of the day, the O-line is going to be the first ones to get the blame,” Bushrod said. “We just have to continue to take pride in ourselves and work to get better.
“But it’s frustrating not having the success we’re used to having and knowing what we could have.”
No team has fewer rushing attempts (96) than the Saints.
In the Broncos game, tackle Charles Brown lined up several times as a tight end to add more blocking, but the result was only 17 attempts, the second-lowest of the season, for a net of 51 yards. In six third-or-fourth down situations where three yards or less were needed, the Saints threw on all six.
“Our goal is always to be more balanced,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “But I’d say if you go to third-and-two-to-three in this league, in a lot of cases you’re throwing the football.
“It’s not just your ‘two tights (ends) and pound it’ runs. You have to get somewhat creative. Defenses are too good in short yardage for that.”
At 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, Cadet, could get the call in those short-yardage situations, either as a receiver out of the backfield or trying to convert on the ground.
But on Friday, he was more mindful of his kick-return duties. With kickoffs now being made from the 35, there are fewer returns being made.
Sproles had none out six Denver kickoffs, and he has the green light to come out of the end zone no matter how deep the kick is.
“I’ve got to make good judgments on those,” Cadet said. “You’re always trying to get your team extra yards.”