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Aug 07

Running Back Context: CJ Spiller set to take charge of Buffalo backfield, how will he fare in Doug Marrone’s offense?

As part of our comprehensive draft guide I shared a piece on the importance of assessing a player’s team and offensive context when deciding on his relative value compared to other players at the position. Along that line of thinking, it is worth noting that six of our consensus top twelve running backs ranked as RB1s in twelve team leagues are operating in new offensive systems this year. In a series of posts, we’ll take a look at the impact of this change of context on each player.

Previous RB Context pieces: Trent RichardsonJamaal CharlesMatt Forte, Steven Jackson.

CJ Spiller, seen here knifing through his own defense, expects to see holes this big when facing opponents in the fall (Photo: Kevin Hoffman/USA Today Sports).

CJ Spiller, seen here knifing through his own defense, expects to see holes this big when facing opponents in the fall (Photo: Kevin Hoffman/USA Today Sports).

Heading into his fourth season CJ Spiller finally resides atop the Buffalo Bills’ depth chart. Make no mistake, Fred Jackson has been an effective contributor for the Bills when healthy, but his presence has kept Spiller from reaching his true fantasy potential. With Chan Gailey ousted the expectation is that Doug Marrone is ready to unleash Spiller. For reasons that many had trouble comprehending, Gailey tended to avoid giving Spiller the ball despite the young back’s success.

Although Doug Marrone does not have a great track record of success with the run game at the NFL or the collegiate level, he does have a proven tendency to hand the workload to a primary ball carrier. These will be welcome words for Spiller enthusiasts who watched a frustrating split between Fred Jackson and Spiller, with the former receiving the bulk of the late game work. Moreover, Marrone has shown a tendency to understand the skillset of each of his backs – he worked with Reggie Bush in New Orleans during his most productive seasons as a Saint. Marrone’s stated intention has been to build his offense around the skills of his players and not force his players to fit a specific scheme – knowing this we can expect to see a lot of Spiller doing what he does best – running with the ball in space. CJ is coming off a season where he averaged 10.7 yards per catch and the new Head Coach should recognize that.

Fred Jackson isn’t out of the picture but he comes into the season another year older and attempting to recover from yet another major injury. Jackson will certainly be given a share of the touches but expect it to be more of a ‘spelling Spiller’ role than a true 50/50 split. Spiller has shown us that he’s able to do much with little in terms of touches in the past, but he’s worked well with defined volume, too. Jackson has missed 11 games over the past two season and the younger back excelled in those contests.

Outside of week 12 of 2011 where Spiller received just five touches he has dominated in Jackson’s absence. In those eleven contests Spiller averaged 17.32 fantasy points per contest with a 56 total yard effort in week 14 of ’11 standing alone as the only game in which the electric back posted less than 11.8 fantasy points, and he crossed the chalk 10 times during those 11 contests. Again, Jackson won’t be out of the picture in 2013 but this helps to illustrate what Spiller’s capable of when asked to shoulder the load. His average of 13.26 fppg in 2012 was a great number; but the figure jumps more than four full points when factoring out the 10 games that Jackson split time with him in last year.

Things aren’t all contextually rosy for Spiller, though. He starts the year with a new QB under center who will be learning a new offense, and whether it is Kevin Kolb or EJ Manuel neither projects as an immediate upgrade. The ceiling for production in Buffalo’s offense is likely limited, but it’s not like we can project a major regression from the unit. Spiller was fantasy’s 7th most productive back (and Pro Football Focus’s 2nd best RB overall) in an offense that finished 20th in the league in points per game and 19th in total yards last year.

The short answer on CJ Spiller (and in many instances on fantasy Running Backs in general) is that it all comes down to volume. This year, there will be more of it and if Marrone coaches as we’re anticipating him to, it will be better suited to Spiller’s unique talents. While Buffalo may struggle to put points on the board again in 2013, we’re still looking at uptick in CJ’s touches. Even if that number ends up being only 3-5 additional touches per game (and I’ve seen projections as high as 30+ per contest) it should be enough for a player who is averaging over 6.0 yards per touch in his career and is coming off a season with 6.0 ypc and 10.7 per reception to increase his production and improve on an already impressive 2012 campaign.

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