When a new regime takes over the reigns of an NFL franchise, their first draft pick - wherever that occurs - is meant to be the pièce de résistance of their re-building effort. That clearly doesn't always happen, but that first major decision will be remembered for years, for better or worse.
With former Buffalo Bills GM Bill Polian, the story is a little different, given that his first major success wasn't selecting RB Ronnie Harmon and OT Will Wolford in the first round; rather, it was luring QB Jim Kelly away from the USFL. John Butler's first pick as Bills GM was CB Thomas Smith. With Tom Donahoe, it was (yes, he did some good things for us, folks). Marv Levy's stint as GM was highlighted by the selections of SS Donte Whitner and DT John McCargo.
Buddy Nix is running the show now, and as his motto is to build through the draft, his first decision carries an extra emphasis on long-term importance. You're all well aware that Clemson running back C.J. Spiller was Nix's first major addition to the roster he's only beginning to overhaul.
No one's sure exactly how big a part of Buffalo's offense Spiller will end up being. Regardless of his workload, the pressure is on for Spiller to deliver on his big-play promise as soon as he hits the NFL field for the first time.
Spiller has lived up to top billing before; he became a superstar as soon as he took the field at Clemson, scoring 12 touchdowns and averaging 7.3 yards per rush as a true freshman. He continued to produce at high levels even as he transformed into the focal point of Clemson's offense, never averaging below 5.3 yards per carry in one collegiate season and ending his illustrious career with 4,967 offensive yards (on 729 touches), 43 touchdowns, and a reputation as perhaps the single best return specialist the college game had ever seen.
He'll face big expectations as an NFL rookie, as well - not only because of his outstanding college career, but because of the position he plays. There is perhaps no other position on the football field at which it is easiest to transition from college to the pros than at running back. That's not to say it's easy; NFL offenses are far more complex than college offenses, and defenders are faster and executing far more complex defensive systems, as well. But rookie running backs are expected to produce, particularly when they're drafted in the Top 10.
Seeing a running back selected in the Top 10 of the NFL Draft isn't an altogether commonplace occurrence. In fact, only five such players have fit that criteria over the past six selection meetings, and not all of them were prolific as rookies - though all did contribute to some degree:
I think it's fair to say that, with the possible exception of Peterson, Spiller should meet or exceed many of those average and, with any luck, touchdown totals. But I'm guessing my expectations may differ slightly from yours.
Durability was never a major issue for Spiller at Clemson (though he did have a nagging toe injury that hampered him as a senior), but at 196 pounds, how he'll hold up to even a respectable workload as a pro remains to be seen. It's an even bigger issue in Buffalo, where season-ending injuries occur about as frequently as head colds. It remains to be seen not only how much work Spiller gets, but whether he's up to a lot of work over the long haul.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again - I am beyond excited to see Spiller take the field as a Bill in 2010. But I see absolutely no reason to temper my expectations with him; he's a great kid more than capable of meeting big expectations, and there isn't a running back on this roster that's as talented. In fact, he's the most talented offensive player on the team, regardless of position. Yes, Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch will steal touches, but if Spiller's not getting the most touches out of that trio by year's end, his rookie season will have been a disappointment. He's a Top 10 pick; those guys are expected to produce. Good running backs can play behind bad lines, as Jackson proved last year - so that's not a good excuse, either. Buffalo needs its top draft pick to produce immediately; I expect him to be competent on his off days, and borderline brilliant when he's on. That's what he's supposed to be, and I'm not going to temper my expectations with him, because Spiller can handle expectations.