There are times when rookie running backs will absolutely drive you crazy. In college, they look like absolute studs – players you can build a dynasty team around for years. They have elite athleticism, eye-popping stats and a dynamic that can only be described as the “it” factor. NFL Draft scouts drool over their potential and make everyone think they’re the next great thing in fantasy and reality.
Then it all comes crashing down.
Such was the case with Buffalo Bills running back CJ Spiller, whose rookie season with the Bills can only be described as an epic disaster. After being drafted with the ninth overall pick in the 2010 draft, Spiller was rarely used as a rookie and posted an anemic 283 rushing yards on 74 carries and added just 157 yards on 24 receptions. While nobody expected him to come in and be a featured back, this was still shocking considering the fact that Spiller was coming off an electric season at Clemson where he posted over 1,700 total yards and 17 scores.
I remember repeatedly wondering why the Bills took Spiller in the draft if they weren’t going to utilize him. Sure, there were some red flags, but they didn’t even give him much of a chance to prove he wasn’t worthy of being a featured back or even a situational one at that. I recall a preseason game where he bounced three straight runs to the outside and thinking to myself, “uh oh, he doesn’t seem willing to run through the tackles.” Still, I thought he’d at least get some opportunities t0 touch the ball. The emergence of Fred Jackson was also a big reason why Spiller was left watching much of the time. Still, it looked like dynasty league owners had wasted top five pick on a player who was little more than a kick returner.
Going into last season, Spiller was a major question mark for dynasty league owners and again, it started out horribly. Through ten games in 2011, he had just 115 rushing yards and 82 receiving yards on 36 total touches. Meanwhile, Fred Jackson was tearing through the league and looking like a late blooming fantasy stud.
Then came the big injury.
When Jackson went down with a fractured fibula, Spiller finally took advantage of his opportunity and didn’t look back. Over the last six games of the season, he recorded 446 rushing yards on a robust 5.2 yards per carry and added 205 receiving yards on 24 catches. Throw in five touchdowns and you had the makings of a fine RB2 in fantasy leagues.
That brings us to the present.
On the positive side, it’s obvious that Spiller has talent. He’s a nightmare for a defense in the open field and can create mismatches all over the place. In fact, in many leagues he was given a designation to be used as a RB or a WR, which can certainly be a nice luxury for fantasy owners – just don’t expect that to carry over to next season.
The Bills have been saying all the right things about Spiller this offseason as well. It’s apparent he’s going to be able to compete with Jackson for the starting job and he showed the ability to carry a good load during the end of 2011. With Jackson coming off injury and recently turning 31, it’s obvious the future at running back in Buffalo involves Spiller in some way, shape or form. In fact, Jackson has still yet to be signed to a long term contract and you can bet Spiller’s emergence is going to give the Bills a lot of leverage in contract negotiations.
If you take Spiller’s stats from his last six games and stretch them out over an entire season, you get an undeniably great fantasy performer. After all, wouldn’t you take 1,184 rushing yards, 544 receiving yards and 13 total touchdowns from your RB2?
Problem is, it’s not all wine and roses with Spiller.
While his production over the last half of the year was great, it still did come with Jackson being gone. The Bills have said time and time again that Jackson will be re-signed and that’s going to adversely affect Spiller’s production. While he won’t likely go back to the days of getting just three touches a game and returning kickoffs, it’s also not likely he gets 20 touches any time soon, either. Even if Spiller beats Jackson out for the job, he won’t be a true featured back.
There are also concerns about Spiller holding up over an entire season. The Bills coaching staff was reportedly pretty concerned about his workload towards the end of the year, thus fueling speculation that Spiller would never truly be a primary back on the team. While they’re saying the right things now, it’s likely more about leverage in Jackson’s contract negotiations.
Spiller also still hesitates in running through the tackles. While it didn’t hamper him too much at the end of the year, you can still see the hesitation in him at times. It’s awful tough to see him be included in goal line carries, thus forcing his owners to hope for long touchdowns, which are very tough to predict.
So, now what?
With Spiller, I think it’s pretty simple. He seems like a player with a skill set similar to Darren Sproles, but with an offense nowhere near as explosive as New Orleans. Penciling him in for anything more than 1,000-1,200 total yards and a handful of touchdowns would be asking a lot. On the same token, it seems that would be a pretty safe yardage and touchdown assumption.
If you have an owner who views him as something more than that, I’d jump on it. Spiller is the type of player you shop around to see how others view him, then likely hold on to him and cross your fingers. I’d just hesitate in buying right now if the price tag is anywhere close to a top 15 running back.
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