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Spotlight: C.J. Spiller

posted by Jason Wood on Aug 6th


Jason Wood's thoughts

The Buffalo Bills have been an odd duck when it comes to the running back position in recent years.

Marshawn Lynch - clearly an elite talent - was selected in the 1st round of the NFL draft and had two solid albeit unspectacular seasons to start his career (2007-2008), and then struggled in his 3rd season. Further struggles on and off the field led to his being sent to Seattle after the first month of the 2010 season.

Fred Jackson has had a more circuitous route to NFL success, landing in Buffalo in 2006 as an undrafted rookie free agent out of tiny Coe College. Jackson flashed potential but saw little work in his early seasons thanks to the presence of Lynch. Fortunately, Jackson did enough in practice to earn his opportunity when Lynch started struggling, and in 2009 he surprised many with 1,433 yards from scrimmage and 46 receptions as a part-time starter. In each of the last two seasons, Jackson has been one of the most productive running backs on a per game basis - but injuries have kept him from putting together a truly spectacular full season.

In 2010 the Bills shocked the football world by selecting C.J. Spiller with the 9th overall selection. It wasn't that Spiller wasn't well regarded by NFL scouts; it was that the Bills were a team with myriad needs, and running back was considered one of the few positions with depth (thanks to Jackson and Lynch). Yet the Bills' front office believed Spiller was too special to pass up, and his rookie preseason hinted at greatness. It was Spiller's presence and Jackson's reliability that made the decision to part ways with Marshawn Lynch an easy one.

In spite of all this talent at the RB position, it's been a bumpy road in Buffalo. Spiller failed to translate his preseason highlights into regular season heroics, and managed a shockingly inconsequential 74 carries for 283 yards and 0 touchdowns in his rookie season. Meanwhile Jackson started 13 games and had 1,142 yards from scrimmage and 7 touchdowns.

Entering the 2011 season, fantasy owners had pretty much abandoned C.J. Spiller - writing him off as a rookie bust. They had also finally embraced Fred Jackson, selecting him as a low end fantasy RB1 or high end RB2 in most drafts. As the 2011 got underway, preseason expectations seemed to play themselves out. Spiller was a non-factor in the first nine weeks - 17 rushes for 112 yards, 13 receptions for 64 yards and one touchdown. Jackson, on the other hand, was everything fantasy owners hoped for and much, much more:

Fantasy RB Standings, 2011 (Weeks 1-9)

Rank First Last Rush RuYds RuTDs Recs RecYds RecTDs FPTs
1 LeSean McCoy 151 825 9 28 184 2 166.9
2 Fred Jackson 150 806 6 30 391 0 155.7
3 Adrian Peterson 167 798 9 16 117 1 151.5
4 Ray Rice 132 530 6 38 416 2 142.6
5 Matt Forte 145 807 2 41 436 1 142.3
6 Arian Foster 154 656 5 27 343 1 135.9
7 Michael Turner 156 691 7 8 105 0 121.6
8 Frank Gore 157 775 5 13 78 0 115.3
9 Darren Sproles 49 347 2 56 446 3 109.3
10 Darren McFadden 113 616 4 19 154 1 107.0

Jackson was the 2nd best fantasy RB in the game, with only LeSean "Shady" McCoy keeping him from top billing. Then, against the Dolphins, Jackson suffered what was first deemed a calf injury. As the weeks progressed, the diagnosis was changed to a broken fibula, and Jackson's season was officially over.

As we often say, fantasy stardom is about ability and opportunity. Spiller had seemingly found his way into the coaches' doghouse, but with Jackson's injury, they had no choice but to give Spiller another shot at the job.

Rank First Last Rush RuYds RuTDs Recs RecYds RecTDs FPTs
1 Ray Rice 153 805 6 30 234 1 145.9
2 Maurice Jones-Drew 152 752 4 28 266 3 143.8
3 Marshawn Lynch 156 698 7 11 63 1 124.1
4 Kevin Smith 70 346 5 21 178 3 100.4
5 LeSean McCoy 107 404 7 17 119 1 100.3
6 C.J. Spiller 88 447 3 27 205 2 95.2
7 Reggie Bush 113 611 3 15 128 0 91.9
8 Arian Foster 107 484 4 22 172 0 89.6
9 DeAngelo Williams 72 438 6 6 74 0 87.2
10 Michael Bush 147 490 3 23 190 0 86.0

Once Spiller was given the lead role, he not only held his own, he showed why the Bills chose him with the 9th overall pick. Spiller was the 6th best fantasy running back once he took over the starting job.

Let's recap:

  • Fred Jackson was the 2nd best fantasy running back when he was the Bills' workhorse
  • C.J. Spiller was the 6th best fantasy running back when he was the Bills' workhorse

This is notable for a number of seasons. One, it's a testament to the Bills offensive line and the blocking schemes. Two, it reminds us that we shouldn't be so quick to dismiss young players just because they struggle as rookies. Three, it sets up an interesting dynamic entering 2012 as both players return and will need to play major roles on a Bills offense that lacks firepower at other positions.

Big Expectations in Buffalo = Big Roles for Both Spiller and Jackson

Generally it's tough to get excited about a running back committee. Fantasy owners never know which running back is going to get the glory in a given week. But for the Bills to meet their lofty goals this year, Jackson and Spiller will each need to flourish.

  • QB Ryan Fitzpatrick is a good, but not great, passer
  • WR Steve Johnson is an excellent playmaker, but the Bills have NO ONE in the WR corps of any renown to line up on the opposite side
  • TE Scott Chandler showed a nose for the end zone, but he's not a dynamic weapon
  • Head coach Chan Gailey is one of the game's most creative offensive minds, and has made it clear he plans on putting his best players (Spiller and Jackson are on the short list) in mismatch situations

The Fantasy Game Plan - Consider Drafting Both, Particularly In PPR Leagues
As we've already shown, both RBs were ELITE fantasy performers when they had the lead job. To think they can't approximate last year's numbers is silly. The coaches, system and supporting casts return intact. Yet, Jackson is currently being drafted RB16 and 32nd overall while Spiller is being drafted RB30 and 77th overall. DRAFT THEM BOTH. That amounts to using a 3rd round selection on Jackson, and a 6th or 7th round pick on Spiller. Worst case, you have a healthy Jackson who may not put up the Top 5 numbers from a year ago (because he's sharing touches with Spiller) but will do enough to 12-15 touches per game to deliver RB2 value. But there's also the possibility that either Jackson or Spiller gets hurt (the NFL is an unforgiving game), and then you've landed a possible every week Top 10 running back for a fraction of the price.

Positives

  • Spiller is electrifying in the open field, and has blazing speed.
  • Last year the light switch went on, and he finally showed the patience to let his blockers do their jobs.
  • The Bills lack much firepower at the TE and WR positions (Steve Johnson excluded), which means the Bills will have to feature both Jackson and Spiller to stay competitive.

Negatives

  • Spiller has looked lost at times in his first two seasons, and it took a major injury to Fred Jackson to get Spiller more than a few token carries per game
  • Opposing defenses are keenly aware of the Bills lack of threats on the outside, most teams will stack the box and force Ryan Fitzpatrick to beat them

Final thoughts

C.J. Spiller is a reminder that sometimes we give up on players way too early. He was the 9th overall selection just two years ago, yet going into drafts last year he was a forgotten man. Granted, he was a total non-factor for the first two months of the 2011 season so clearly the draft day caution was warranted. Yet, as luck would have it, injuries opened the door and Spiller made the most of his second chance -- performing as a top 6 fantasy back. Entering 2012, Chan Gailey is going to try to use Spiller all over the field. He'll get plenty of snaps as a running back, but he'll also be lined up in the slot and outside at times. In PPR leagues, Spiller makes an excellent option as either a handcuff with Jackson or as a compelling flex option in his own right.


Quotations from the message board thread

To view the entire Player Spotlight thread (there's a ton of fantastic commentary in there), click here.

Grigs Allmoon said:

See: Garrison Hearst, Kevan Barlow circa 2001. I don't see the old guy letting up just yet. I'd imagine similar stats to last year, if both are healthy. So, a little bit of ground made by Spiller. I just haven't seen enough out of Spiller to think he's going to step in and be a dynamic all-around RB.

TheDirtyWord said:

I'm buying BUF this year. I think they were one of these teams last year that started to become self-conscious about their success and then at a time when they could have pulled themselves out of their downward spiral, lost their best player for the season and had their QB severely compromised due to injury.

Did C.J. Spiller show some big time potential upon Fred Jackson being lost for the season with a broken leg? Yes. Does this mean that we're likely to see Spiller assume a larger, more defined role in the BUF offense because of his late season showing? Yes. However, with the emergence of two extremely capable players at RB, I expect the complexion of the BUF to shift dramatically and there being enough opportunity to feed 2 RB' s in this offense yet F-Jax to still be the clear lead dog.

Last season, Ryan Fitzpatrick finished 6th in the NFL in passing attempts with 569. BUF does not strike me as a team that should be putting the ball up that many times and when they got off to their surprising 5-2 start, they were only throwing the ball 32.7 times/game. But during their 1-8 finish...that number increased to 38.7. I think this offense reverts back to being one that might put it up around 500 times in 2012...resulting in a fairly significant drop in that category, but with more efficiency. 2011 saw the Bills finish tied for 28th in giveaways. This is a team that made a large investment on the defensive side of the ball and the mandate on offense will be to limit the turnovers on offense while maintaining explosiveness. A Jackson/Spiller driven offense allows the Bills to do this.

Ultimately, I could see Jackson/Spiller combining for 500 touches much like the Chiefs ground game of 2010 (534). It makes sense for them to run the offense through their 2 best offensive players and establishing Fitzpatrick's ability to push the ball downfield as their offensive counter punch versus primary objective. The question is - if there are 500+ touches for the taking - who gets what? My thinking is that the Bills will be conscious to try and keep the workload manageable for both with Jackson probably topping out at about 300 touches...and because both backs are so versatile, their presence on the field will almost be situation neutral with perhaps some level of favoritism given to F-Jax based on pass protection ability (I'm assuming he's better in this area) and to Spiller when they are using him specifically in the downfield passing game (he caught 49% of his passes past the LOS versus F-Jax who managed just 23% in this area).

As such, while F-Jax value is not going to be quite what it was in 2011 when he was perhaps the best RB in the NFL prior to getting hurt and you probably drafted him in Round 5-6, I think you'll be able to take advantage of others reluctance to touch the BUF running game in the first 2-3 rounds because of the unclear role of each player. Jackson will still produce above his ADP. And while Spiller won't be the workhorse he was upon Jackson getting hurt, he'll have a significant role in the BUF offense.


C.J. Spiller projections

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Jason Wood1707505433102
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