C.J. Spiller is one of the most mysterious fantasy football values of 2014. He burned owners badly in 2013 as a top-5 pick only to end up finishing as the 26th best RB in fantasy football. Spiller was so terrible he was actually dropped in a large portion of fantasy leagues, which is nearly unheard of for your first round pick. Spiller was a total bust in 2013. He allowed Old Man Fred Jackson to sail passed him in fantasy points up to the 11th best RB in fantasy in 2013. Spiller wasn’t even the best RB on his team and now he has more challengers for carries with the addition of the speedy Bryce Brown to the Bills backfield. So, should we just write off Spiller’s incredible 2012 as an anomaly and stay away in 2014? Or should we give this running back another chance?
Heading into 2014, Spiller will be entering his 5th season in the NFL. He is only 27 years old and has limited NFL touches since he has shared the backfield with Fred Jackson in his time in Buffalo. So, Spiller is relatively well-preserved at this point of his NFL career. Injuries derailed his 2013 season, but were there other reasons for his decline in production? And if healthy in 2014, can he a good rebound candidate?
In 2012, CJ Spiller had an incredible 6.0 YPC (yards per carry) while carrying the ball 207 attempts. Since 1998, only two other NFL running backs have reached 6.0 YPC (>100 carries per season): Jamaal Charles 6.4 YPC in 2010, and Adrian Peterson 6.0 YPC in 2012. Heading into 2013, CJ Spiller was the total fantasy football package. He was molded in the Jamaal Charles build. He was able to catch passes and break runs for enormous plays routinely. He also demonstrated improved ability running between the tackles and more patience as a runner in 2012. He was destined to increased his workload as Freddie Jackson’s load reduced. He was about to become a top-3 fantasy football running back. And then 2013 happened.
So, what happened to CJ in 2013? A new Head Coach and new Offensive Coordinator led the Bills into 2013. Head Coach Doug Marrone brought his Syracuse OC, Nathaniel Hackett to Buffalo. They wanted to employ a fast-paced, K-Gun-inspired offensive attack, and bring the good fans in Buffalo the offense that led the Bills to four straight Super Bowls. Spiller seemed to be a good fit for this style of offense. OC Nathaniel Hackett was quoted in the 2012 offseason as saying, “It’s real simple. We’re going to give him the ball until [Spiller] throws up.” Spiller seemed to be the likely candidate for the lead back role.
However, all the off-season hype and perceived improved roster could not help the Bills shake off the rust. The Bills have not reached the playoffs since the Music City Miracle loss to Tennessee in 1999. The offense started poorly in 2013. Rookie QB, E.J. Manuel was forced into being the starter after Kevin Kolb was injured in the preseason. Manuel did not appear ready and neither did Spiller. Hackett’s offense was quick; however this often lead to even quicker three and outs for a young Bills offense. Spiller had a hard time finding running room. He reverted to his tendency to attempt to bounce too many runs outside versus taking what yardage that was available. Hackett found more success with hard-nosed Fred Jackson. Spiller had arguably his worst performance as a pro in week three versus the New York Jets. He ran 10 times for 9 yards and added 1 catch for 1 yard. Spiller’s season had completely come off the rails.
In week 4, Spiller suffered a high ankle fracture which would impact the remainder of 2013. A high ankle sprain affects the upper portion of the calf. Unlike other ankle sprains, a high ankle sprain affects the two largest load-bearing bones of the lower leg. The fibula and tibia are held together by a strong, fibrous set of ligaments called a syndesmosis. When these ligaments are stretched the two bones (fibula and tibia) are pulled apart which causes pain and instability of the entire lower leg. This injury is much more severe than a typical ankle sprain. Typical sprains can be taped and strengthened easier than a high ankle sprain. The only way to recover from high ankle sprain is to rest. Sadly, the Bills decision-makers did not allow Spiller to have adequate rest. Spiller played weeks 5-7 with the high ankle sprain and did not exceed 70 total yards in any game. Spiller was finally rested for an entire game in week 8. He returned with increased burst in week 9 against the undefeated KC Chiefs and had one of his best games of the season (12 rushes for 116 yards and 2 receptions for 39 yards). Spiller wasn’t listed on the injury report in weeks 10-17; but he never received > 15 carries until the final 2 weeks of the season. I feel Spiller was likely still suffering from the sprain until week 15 or even into the off-season.
Injuries obviously affected his total production in 2013. However, if we examine his numbers compared to 2012, we see that Spiller had only 5 less rushing attempts in 2013. He had 300 less rushing yards and 6 less total touchdowns. Spiller was still able to have the 7th best YPC average in the NFL in 2013, which bodes well heading into the future. The biggest difference between 2012 and 2013 was Spiller’s receiving yards. Spiller had 10 less receptions in 2013 versus 2012, but the yards suffered severely. He had only 185 yards in 2013 versus 459 in 2012. The Bills were unable to utilize the screen pass in 2013. 2012 Coach Chan Gailey and QB Ryan Fitzpatrick knew how to get the ball into Spiller’s hands with room to run in the screen game. Hackett and E.J. Manuel couldn’t reproduce those receiving numbers in 2013, which does give us cause for concern in 2014.
But it wasn’t only the ankle sprain and new offensive scheme which helped to derail Spiller, but Manuel didn’t help either. E.J. Manuel was inefficient, inaccurate and oft-injured in 2013. He did not demonstrate the touch needed for short receptions to his talented backs. Knee injuries forced Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel into the starting lineup. Manuel only played 10 games in 2013, missing weeks 6-9 and weeks 15-17. Manuel was behind from the start of the season. Kevin Kolb’s preseason concussion forced Manuel to play earlier than Marrone and company would have liked which means he wasn’t fully prepared to be a starting quarterback in week 1. When Manuel finally started to feel comfortable in weeks 2-5, he suffered his first knee injury of the season. The rest of the season was a crap shoot, but mostly just crap. Thad Lewis played admirably and won 2 divisional games against the Dolphins, but realistically Tuel and Lewis are questionable as even back ups in the NFL. The jury is still out on E.J. Manuel as a starter in the NFL. The QB position was a revolving door for the Bills in 2013. But if EJ Manuel can manage to stay healthy and play 16 games, he can help stabilize the Bills and improve Spiller’s 2014 campaign.
Spiller’s 2013 season has caused him to have the label of injury-prone. However, he has only missed one game since entering the NFL. For a slighter back, he has averaged playing 15.75 games per season. I am not concerned about the presence of Fred Jackson or Bryce Brown either. The Bills lead the league in rushing plays in 2013 and will surely run enough to keep Spiller involved. He had 1,244 yards on only 207 carries in 2012 and he had 202 rushes last year while injured and missing a game. I don’t feel injuries or competition should be what prevents you from drafting Spiller in 2014. My biggest concerns would be about the Bills in general. Can we really trust E.J. Manuel, Sammy Watkins and C.J. Spiller to be reliable?
If we look at ADP, owners aren’t sure. His 2014 ADP has fluctuated from as high as 2.01 and as low as 4.11 and now he currently settled into the late third round at 3.08. Is the third round a safe place to select Spiller? In my opinion, C.J. represents such a high upside and last year’s numbers should be his floor. Spiller was one of several first round running backs who failed in 2012 (Doug Martin, Trent Richardson, Ray Rice, Arian Foster). Foster and Martin have maintained at least 2nd round ADP in 2014. Rice and Richardson were bad and have fallen into the 5th and 6th round. These ADP values indicate that Spiller belongs between these two groups. I can’t fully comprehend Spiller being behind Doug Martin. Martin was injured throughout 2013 and he will be in a committee in 2014. Foster was hurt for nearly half of 2013, but he maintains value due to his role as a bell cow back in Houston. I would rather have Spiller than Martin in 2014. I feel Spiller should be drafted right next to Foster in 2014. Both backs have top-5 ceilings and are coming off injuries in 2013. Spiller is the younger back of the two. I would also trust an ankle injury to fully heal better than coming off back surgery.
Do I think Spiller is risky in 2014? Absolutely not. I think he is one of the best values at running back based on current ADP. He could be a strong RB1 for someone who employs the WR-WR draft strategy. I would be ecstatic to get Spiller in the 3rd round this year, too bad I play with too many Buffalo homers. But I wanted to share my knowledge, so you don’t pass up this superstar running back talent. Spiller has the talent to win championships in 2014.