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Will CJ Spiller Always Be a High Upside Back in a Low Usage Situation?


Via: AFC East Daily | C.J. Spiller wary of too heavy a workload

“There’s no way I can just flip the switch and say I want to carry it this many times, because in my whole career, if you start from high school, I probably average 12 carries,” he said. “For me to flip that and say let me carry it 20 times, it would be hard for me to do, a hard adjustment.”

That’s a direct quote from CJ Spiller last offseason when he was asked about comments from his new offensive coordinator about giving him the ball “until he throws up.” If you’re a CJ Spiller owner you probably just threw up in your mouth a little bit. Last season was a disappointing one for Spiller and his fantasy owners. Some of his struggles have been blamed on a high ankle sprain that he suffered in week 4, but I think the real injury problem for Spiller was that Fred Jackson didn’t suffer any. Let’s just take a quick look at Spiller’s career and we’ll sprinkle FJax in there for fun.

Rookie Year

PlayerGPRush/GRush YPGRush Y/ARec/GRec YPGTD/G

Spiller had a lot of expectations having been drafted 9th overall1. Instead, he averaged a mere 3.8 yards per carry and Fred Jackson continued being the primary ball carrier in Buffalo. Most of Spiller’s impact came as a punt returner where he had 1000+ yards and a TD. The return yardage isn’t reflected in the table above obviously, but I did give him credit for the TD since most leagues count those. All in all, not a very auspicious start, but he was a rookie and I wouldn’t necessarily hold this against him. I will point out though that Spiller wasn’t a young rookie. He’d been a four year college player and he turned 23 before his first NFL game.

 Second Year

PlayerGPRush/GRush YPGRush Y/ARec/GRec YPGTD/G
Spiller (weeks 1-10)102.111.504.581.508.200.1
Spiller (weeks 11-16)614.3373.335.304.0031.170.83

His overall numbers show improvements across the board from his rookie season, but there’s nothing spectacular about his totals. For your convenience2, I did split up his season into the first 10 games and the last 6 games. Those first 10 games contained 21 Spiller carries and 15 receptions. That’s it. Then in week 11 it was like someone flipped a switch and all of a sudden Spiller became exactly what fantasy football owners were hoping he would be. He started putting up 15+ points per game in standard scoring and almost 20 in PPR leagues. What happened? Did Spiller finally figure out the pro game? Did Buffalo switch up their game plan? Both of those things might be true, but the real catalyst here was Fred Jackson breaking his leg. FJax had accounted for 1300+ total yards on his own through 10 weeks before he went on IR and at that point Spiller became the Bills’ primary ball carrier with the production to match. It is worth pointing out though that FJax’s numbers through the first ten games were better than what Spiller did in the last six. FJax had more rushing yards per game, more receiving yards per game and a higher per carry average. Spiller barely edged him in receptions per game (4.0 vs 3.9) and in TDs per game (0.8 vs 0.6). Whoever the lead back was for Buffalo was a guy you wanted starting on your fantasy team.

 Third Year

PlayerGPRush/GRush YPGRush Y/ARec/GRec YPGTD/G
Spiller (with FJax)1010.371.406.552.6022.600.3
Spiller (no FJax)617.3388.335.192.8338.830.83

Now we’re talking. Spiller’s third year fulfilled those earlier expectations. 1,700 total yards, 43 catches and 8 TDs is a nice bit of work. Once again, Fred Jackson missed 6 games and, once again, Spiller’s production spiked in the games that Jackson was out. In this case, the contrast wasn’t as stark. Jackson’s missed time was spread out across the season as he missed time with an MCL sprain and a concussion so there wasn’t a continuous six game stretch like the previous season. Even when Jackson played, Spiller was still getting a healthy amount of work and putting up close to 100 yards a game. Spiller was also much more effective than Jackson, but when they were both on the field Jackson still managed to get a slight majority of carries, receptions and touchdowns.

 Fourth Year

PlayerGPRush/GRush YPGRush Y/ARec/GRec YPGTD/G
Spiller (weeks 1-4)416.5057.503.
Spiller (weeks 5-16)1112.3663.915.012.1814.180.18

This time around, Jackson played every week and it was Spiller who missed a game. The ankle injury that Spiller suffered in week 4 has been blamed for some of his mediocre results so I split his production in the table again this time dividing into categories for pre-injury and post-injury. He was getting more work before the ankle problems, but he was actually more effective later in the year than he was in the season’s first month. You could highlight the positives and note that Spiller finally received more carries per game than Fred Jackson did even though Jackson was healthy all year. Also, Spiller set a career high for attempts per game.

Career Numbers and What to Do With This Guy

PlayerGPRush/GRush YPGRush Y/ARec/GRec YPGTD/G
Spiller (with FJax)359.3150.345.412.1114.090.17
Spiller (no FJax)1215.8381.335.143.4235.000.83

I’ve covered the effects of age on performance previously. One of the simple and stupid things I like to do in evaluating veteran players is to simply total up their careers and look at their per game numbers. Then you can apply a discount or bonus based on where they fall on the age curve or simply look at whether their previous season(s) showed signs of tailing off. When calculating these career totals, I’ll sometimes toss out the games that occurred before a player was getting a full complement of snaps. In this table, I’ve chucked out CJ Spiller’s rookie season entirely. That leaves him with 47 games. I went ahead and split those up into games with FJax and games without. More on Spiller in a bit, but first let’s discuss the ageless Fred Jackson.

Fred Jackson has one of those careers that defies reason. He didn’t even make the NFL until he was 26. He really burst onto the fantasy scene when he was 28 and he forced Marshawn Lynch into a backup role. Since then, everyone has been waiting for him to get old and he just keeps chugging along. He turned 33 in February. This chart contains all 92 games of his career and his numbers are basically identical to what he put up this last season. The only real difference between his surprising finish this season and his usual totals was that he saw a spike in his touchdown totals. He’s pretty much the perfect RB zero placeholder. If you’re going to roll with that approach then you’re really hoping that some of the upside RBs you draft will eventually hit. Prior to those opportunities though, a guy like FJax can keep your roster from floundering at the position. He’s basically free and you can include him as a throw-in to any deal without the other owner batting an eye. This guy eventually has to just disappear, but at this point you might as well just ride him until that happens.

Back to Spiller. His career numbers (minus his rookie season) are almost identical to those of his backfield partner. His yards per carry is ridiculous, but he’s seen fewer carries per game than Jackson has. His 6+ YPC from 2012 represents the kind of feat that’s unlikely to repeat. Again, he saw more carries per game in 2013 than he did during his breakout 2012. It seems like two different coaching staffs have decided that limiting his touches is best for him and the team. Given the quote that I lead in with, it seems like Spiller himself doesn’t necessarily disagree. He did lead his team in carries per game last year, but have a look back at 2013’s RB efficiency numbers compiled by the FantasyDouche. Spiller’s fantasy points over par (or FPOP) were basically average. That’s certainly off the pace of his career FPOP numbers 3, but the bigger problem is that his expected points were about 126 while FJax was up around 170. Fred Jackson was getting the higher value touches.

Spiller’s ADP is currently 9th among RBs and 26th overall.  He turns 27 before the start of next season. He’s  three weeks older than Darren McFadden, two months older than Ryan Mathews, about a month younger than Knowshon Moreno, and eight months younger than Ray Rice. Basically, all of these guys fall within a calendar year of one another yet it seems like there’s this expectation that Spiller is about to embark on the prime of his career while most of these guys are considered washed up. The highlight of his fantasy career is twelve games where his team was forced to rely on him which happened to overlap with a spike in his average per carry. Some other notable RBs4 have seen seasons where their YPC spiked and then returned to their average. That’s what happened with Spiller this season except he didn’t get the quantity of touches to hold his value.

Last offseason there was quite a bit of RotoViz content dedicated to CJ Spiller, like thisthisthis and this.  Note that the common denominator in all of those pieces was the assumption5 that Spiller’s workload was set to increase. Technically, he did get more touches than he had before, but nothing to puke at. This offseason, the Bills have been linked to Chris Johnson and drafting a RB so it doesn’t seem like they’re content to wait for Fred Jackson to disappear and then hand the reigns to Spiller. His real football team views him as a limited touch player and that’s probably how your fake teams should view him too. The dude has upside, but he’s only going to achieve it if he gets touches and his history points to that being unlikely.

  1. Remember when teams used to draft RBs in the 1st round?  (back)
  2. and WOW factor  (back)
  3. His career 0.11 number is impressive  (back)
  4. Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson and Jamaal Charles for example  (back)
  5. based on the same offensive coordinator quote that Spiller responded to up top  (back)

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