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Back to the Future: C.J. Spiller

Digging up comparables from the past to try to predict C.J. Spiller's future.

Without the help of a flux capacitor or Dr. Emmett Brown, this series will attempt to take a look back in time to help us predict the future dynasty results of some of our current fantasy stars. The third running back in the series is C.J. Spiller, whose third-year breakout has many projecting a monster year in 2013. Spiller is electric with the ball in his hands and a threat to score from anywhere on the field. He averaged six yards per carry and nearly eleven yards per catch in 2012, so clearly he's a star in the making...right?

In writing my running backs career arcs article earlier this year I noticed that Spiller was one of only 4 running backs of the 107 I charted to score 200 fantasy points in their third season after failing to reach 150 fantasy points in Years 1 or 2. With the help of our handy Historical Data Dominator, I found that 57 running backs had scored 200 fantasy points in their 3rd season, and all but 12 had scored at least 150 fantasy points in a season before doing so. From that group, the three best matches to Spiller's arc were DeAngelo Williams, Neal Anderson, and Napoleon Kaufman.

Now I realize the negativity foretold by this chart might lead some to believe that this group was cherry picked. To make it easier for you, I've decided to include the entire list of running backs in this group, along with their year three and year four fantasy points:

Player Year 3 Year 4
DeAngelo Williams 284 179
Darren McFadden 226 107
Napoleon Kaufman 218 123
Barry Foster 269 147
Gerald Riggs 254 259
Ahman Green 264 217
Leroy Kelly 247 226
Rudi Johnson 226 227
Neal Anderson 220 261
Peyton Hillis 244 90
Delvin Williams 203 163
C.J. Spiller 218 ???

As you can see, of the previous eleven backs to accomplish this feat, seven of them saw a regression of 10% or more, one saw an increase in fantasy points of 10% or more and three maintained relatively similar production. The three backs I chose most closely mirrored the first three years of Spiller's career so let's take a closer look at them.

Like Spiller, Napoleon Kaufman split time with Harvey Williams in his first two seasons before winning over the fans and his coaches with his explosive and elusive style. Kaufman was of the diminutive variety and a threat to score from anywhere on the field. In his first three seasons he scored six times from more than 50 yards out. Kaufman's star burnt brightly and quickly and by year five he was losing the starting job to Tyrone Wheatley. Kaufman retired after his sixth season to become a minister, but it's important to note that in that year he was still averaging more than five yards per carry.

DeAngelo Williams had the best year three of any player comped to Spiller, but he also had the fastest fall from the top. The reasons, as you might guess, were injuries. After playing in 45 games during his first 3 years, Williams missed 3 games in year 4 and 10 in year 5. By the time he was healthy enough to play 16 games the team had added Jonathan Stewart and Williams' chances of being a fantasy star we all but gone. Like Spiller, Williams' touches in his first two seasons had been limited by a veteran back, so neither overuse or prior injury history can be blamed for Williams fall.

For optimists on Spiller's future, at least in 2013, Neal Anderson is the back for you. Anderson came of age as a fullback blocking for Walter Payton before taking over the feature role in his third year. It was a different time, as evidenced by the fact that Anderson was the same height as Spiller and only 15 pounds heavier, but played fullback and excelled at the goal line. Anderson scored seven times from inside the five in his third season and eight more in his fourth. Spiller is expected to start receiving goal line carries after not scoring even one touchdown inside the five in 2012. Like Spiller may be, Anderson was the Bears offense in his fourth season leading the team in rushing, receptions, rushing touchdowns and receving touchdowns.

The three backs above illustrate that there are a lot of different ways to go about playing the running back position. Stylistically, Kaufman may be the most similar to Spiller, but there's no reason to foresee A) the Bills bringing in a larger back to compete with Spiller or B) Spiller retiring after three seasons. Anderson offers the most optimistic view, but his style was completely different than Spiller's, and so was his offense. Williams offers a cautionary tale that injuries can derail even the brightest of break-out years. Before I get to observations and projections, let's take a look at all four backs through three seasons, to see who was the most statistically similar.

PLAYER ATT RUYDS Y/A RUTD REC REYDS Y/REC RETD
Williams 538 2733 5.1 23 78 609 7.8 4
Anderson 413 1838 4.5 15 90 918 10.2 4
Kaufman 530 2658 5.0 8 71 608 8.6 3
Spiller 388 2088 5.4 10 106 885 8.3 5

OBSERVATIONS AND PROJECTIONS

If there's one thing I take from this it's that a breakout third year for a running back does not guarantee an equally successful fourth season, not even close. There is a huge range of possibilities with a player like Spiller, and within that range is failure. Running backs that rely solely on long touchdowns to score are generally not very consistent in their scoring, and to this point in his career that's about the only way Spiller has reached the end zone.

Spiller reaching the ceiling that many have set for him relies on a lot of ifs:

  • If he does start receiving goal line duties
  • If he stays healthy, which will always be a question for a back his size
  • If his offense is able to produce something, anything, in the passing game

Do I think Spiller is going to be a bust in 2013? Not at all. I think he's going to be a borderline RB1 with the potential to either lead the league in fantasy points for that particular week or put up a stinker that costs your team a win. Long term he is the ultimate high risk, high reward player but I don't imagine his dynasty value will be going up any time soon. If there's someone in your league that thinks he's about to become an elite running back for several years I would certainly engage them.

Follow Heath Cummings on Twitter @heathcummingssr


More from Heath Cummings:

What if Percy Harvin is lost for the season? - August 18
Training Camp Believe It Or Not: Week 2 - August 13
Draft To Trade: Mid-Late Rounds - August 12
What if Jamaal Charles is lost for the season? - August 9
Player Spotlight: Frank Gore - August 8
Draft To Trade: The Early Rounds - August 8
Training Camp Believe It Or Not: Week 1 - August 4
Player Spotlight: Julius Thomas - August 3
Player Spotlight: Jordy Nelson - July 31
Player Spotlight: Arian Foster - July 30