As a fantasy community we expected an awful lot out of C.J. Spiller last season, ranking him as a consensus top 10 overall play and pegging him for an upper tier RB output across the board. Sure, we got it wrong, but Spiller’s 2013 wasn’t all that bad.
You can’t blame observers for being over excited, after all there was talk of vomit inducing workloads and visions were conjured of the 32-year-old Fred Jackson arriving to camp using a cane to support his aging frame. In part thanks to an ankle injury, and moreso the fact that you can’t trust offseason coachspeak, there was no vomit to speak of and Jackson staved off the regression imp for another season.
With a bum peg, Spiller hobbled to an underwhelming 1118 total yard, 4.6 YPC, 235 touch, 2 TD campaign.
Read that one again. C.J. Spiller spent the entire season injured and posted a 4.6 YPC mark. He received just 235 touches, well below our projections and posted more than 1100 total yards. He was clearly not himself, and yet he impressed across the board – in all areas except touchdowns that is.
As a whole, Buffalo’s offense underwhelmed last season. It was their first year with Nathaniel Hackett calling the plays, while using an oft injured rookie signal caller, and the entire unit seemed out of rhythm. The team finished 22nd in points, and 19th in yards but they also shared an important tendency that bodes well for Spiller in 2014. Hackett’s Bills finished first in rushing attempts and second in yards last season. While some of that is likely a product of installing a new system and not wishing to ask too much of EJ Manuel in his first year (or the Thad Lewis/Jeff Tuel combination that relieved him) you’re going to see a team that focuses on establishing the ground game in 2014 as well.
Speaking to Chris Brown of the team’s website earlier this week, Spiller noted that the ground game being asked to shoulder the load in their first year in a new system was a bit of a challenge.
“For us to be second in the league in rushing with a new system and us trying to get comfortable with what was going on – Now we have that year up under us and you can see the difference, everybody is confident in what we’re doing and hopefully that will bring better things.
The article further points out that Spiller knows something about the leap between first and second years in a system. He racked up 5.2 YPC in his first season starting under Chan Gailey, but it wasn’t until his second year that things really came together, rushing at a 6.0 YPC clip and scoring eight total touchdowns.
Bufallo is going to rush a lot in year two of the Marrone/Hackett system just as they did in year one. The volume will be there, though how much of it belongs to Spiller remains to be seen. Last year he and Jackson split the carries virtually evenly with 206 for the vet and the above mentioned 202 bestowed upon Spiller. Surprisingly, Jackson netted 14 more receptions (47-33) than the fourth year pro. With his 202 chances, Spiller remained efficient. His yards per carry number was below his 5.1 career average but till measured well above the league norm.
The projections of a significant workload are making the rounds again, with BuffaloBills.com suggesting that he may get 20 touches a game. That projects to just a 320 touch season, so it isn’t completely out of whack but represents a significant upgrade over last season to be sure. In truth, Spiller doesn’t need 300+ touches to be effective. Assuming he picks up just an additional 35-50 carries from Jackson this season (not a stretch, given the veteran’s advancing age) he’ll almost automatically become a 1000 yard rusher with damage to be done in the receiving game as well. After all, he put up a 1250 rushing yard (1699 total yard) campaign on 207 carries in 2012 when fully healthy. More telling than the workload spiel from the Bills.com piece is Nathaniel Hackett being quoted as saying that Spiller will be used in multiple looks, lining up all over the field and playing the matchups. I’m excited to see how they unleash a healthy Spiller on defenses around the league and look for the team to get its best weapon opportunities in favorable matchups.
While we’re on the topic of workload, it should be noted that the Bills made a few additions to their backfield depth chart this offseason. Bryce Brown and Anthony Dixon were brought in after the team’s draft season flirtation with trading up for Carlos Hyde. The subsequent trade for Brown has some suggesting that Buffalo is concerned about Spiller’s ability to contribute in 2014 but the rest of this depth chart looks more like a Jackson insurance plan or 2015 replacement plan to me. Certainly, none of the backs on the roster bring the play making ability that a healthy Spiller does.
Touchdowns are going to remain an issue – even if Fred Jackson’s workload is tapered off he’s going to continue to be the man around the goal line. The distribution of carries there in 2013 wasn’t even close – with 15 goal line opportunities for FJax compared to just one for C.J., but Spiller is a threat to take it to the house from outside the 10 as well and his contributions in yardage should help mitigate and losses in six-pointers. You’d like a player being recommended as a top tier RB2 to be in line for plenty of touchdowns, but double digit scores aren’t requisite to turn a profit on Spiller.
Overall, the contextual factors shape up very well for Spiller to enjoy a rebound season. There aren’t any true threats to 250-300 touches on the depth chart, and as Jackson ages – some day he’ll stop defying the 30-year-old RB cliff – that fact only becomes more true.
The offense is improving around him, too. With a rookie QB who was in and out of the lineup last season and a core of young unproven receivers outside of Steve Johnson, Buffalo didn’t boast a lot of aerial threats last year. That led to defenses keying on Spiller and his fellow Running Backs last year and made finding space more challenging than it needed to be. This year, Manuel should continue his development meaning that the pass game should become somewhat more legitimate and warranting of opponents’ respect.
The receiving group remains young, particularly with Johnson now taking up residency in California but Robert Woods showed flashes last season and appears ready to start for Buffalo this year. Sammy Watkins, of course, brings another infusion of youth but his dynamic skill set should make him an immediate threat each time he has the ball in his hands. If nothing else, his perception as a legitimate deep threat (along with the down field speed of Marquise Goodwin) should free up space for Spiller to work as a receiver underneath and against defenses that have their attention focused elsewhere in the run game. A lot remains to be seen with this offense so I won’t make any proclamations beyond that, but in general things are looking up for the team offensively.
Above all else though it comes down to health. We can’t project a fully healthy season from Spiller of course, but we know that he is starting it healthy which is a better position than he was in for much of 2013. Perhaps due to his own stubbornness, a poor decision by the team or both he was never given time to rest an injured ankle last year. After finally getting two weeks off, courtesy of a week inactive and the bye week Spiller returned to the field with a noticeable spring in his step. #28 scored two touchdowns in the five games that remained in the season and posted a significantly improved yards per carry average (5.4) while averaging more than 100 total yards per game. Even without a year to get to know the system, the promise of additional work, and the improving offensive situation around him, Spiller should be expected to outpace 2013 based on his health alone.
According to FantasyPros’ consensus ADP, the Bills’ RB is coming off the board at the end of the 3rd round as the 18th RB selected. In what was viewed by everyone as a season well below his expectations and his ability he finished as the 27th ranked back last year… not all that far off, and is just a season removed from a top 10 overall finish. Let others tout last season’s numbers as warranting his exclusion from the fantasy elite. Take the discount, and enjoy. A healthy C.J. Spiller has plenty to offer in 2014.
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