In two years as the Buffalo Bills' head coach, Chan Gailey has proven that his offense doesn't cater well to multiple running backs. That presents a problem for the team moving forward, considering they have two worthy runners on their roster.
That problem is complicated by the fact that the team's top runner, Fred Jackson, will be 31 next month and is currently angling for a well-deserved pay raise. The Bills have two legitimate No. 1 running backs on their roster - one of which may be unhappy if he doesn't get a new deal - and a head coach that has yet to figure out how to use two such players effectively in his system.
The Bills have more pressing issues across their roster, to be sure, but this particular issue may soon fall out of the "nice problem to have" category.
Age: 30 (31 in February 2012)
Contract: UFA in 2013. Has one year remaining (at $1.83M) on a four-year deal signed in May of 2009.
Time away and the play of his understudy has diluted just how awesome Jackson was in 2011, so here's a refresher: when he landed on IR, Jackson was the NFL's leading rusher and was in contention to lead the league in total yards from scrimmage. In nine full games this season, Jackson averaged 5.6 yards per carry and 145 total yards per game, and also set a career high with six rushing touchdowns. In a world without quarterbacks, Jackson was a legitimate MVP candidate.
There's no question that Jackson, even as he's surpassed the age of 30, has out-performed the meager four-year deal he signed as a part-timer prior to the 2009 season. He has repeatedly expressed his faith that GM Buddy Nix will get him a new deal. There's also no question that a healthy Jackson remains the team's top tailback; he does everything exceedingly well, and Gailey trusts him with on-field responsibilities like no other player on the roster save the quarterback.
Age: 24 (25 in August 2012)
Contract: UFA in 2015. Due $3.9M in base salary over next three years; $12M in incentives available in 2014.
A little-used enigma for much of his first two professional seasons, Spiller finally got an opportunity to shine when Jackson was injured - and shine he did. In the final six games of the season as the Bills' No. 1 tailback, Spiller averaged 105 scrimmage yards and 5.2 yards per carry, scored five total touchdowns, and displayed the type of game-breaking ability that made him such a coveted commodity coming out of Clemson. He's still inconsistent in setting up blockers and drops more passes than he should, but his end-of-season surge has to have given him a huge confidence boost, and he's earned a much bigger workload than simply being a change of pace to Jackson.
Age: 27 (28 in November 2012)
Contract: UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENT
Choice was added to the roster off waivers from the Washington Redskins when Jackson went down for the season. He immediately became a contributor (as well as a nuisance to Bills fans eager for more Spiller touches), aided by his connection with Gailey, who coached him at Georgia Tech. Choice was not great in his short stint with the Bills, but he was effective in keeping Spiller fresh, and he knows the offense. There's a chance that Gailey will want him back, but Choice may not be eager to re-join such a crowded backfield.
Age: 23 (24 in February 2012)
Contract: UFA in 2015. Financial details of rookie four-year deal unknown.
A fifth-round pick in 2011 out of North Carolina, White was added to the roster more for the value he provided as a specialist than as a pure running back. Sure enough, White touched the ball just 13 times in his rookie season, but certainly looked the part as a coverage man on kicks and punts. The team clearly was not comfortable giving White more of a running workload when Jackson went down, however, which does not speak well to his prospects of getting more involved offensively moving forward.
Bruce Hall is on the roster, as well; he landed on IR after spending part of the pre-season with the team. He is an exclusive rights free agent, and very likely does not figure into the team's plans at the position. Don't expect him back.
POSITIONAL OUTLOOK: The Bills have two very good running backs, and it's on Gailey to figure out how to milk production out of both of them simultaneously. It's also on Gailey to figure out how to effectively use both not just as runners, but as receivers. This position is one where the Bills are very talented and more than sufficiently deep, but if Gailey's offense can only use one back at a time, does that really matter?
FREE AGENCY: Choice is the name to watch here. Gailey is very familiar with Choice and spoke highly of him as Spiller's change-of-pace back at the close of the season - and it's hard to imagine Choice getting much play on the open market. He'd be a capable third back, but if the Bills can't use two, why do they need three? White was drafted specifically to get special teams value out of the little-used third running back slot, and if that's the plan once Jackson's healthy, Choice may not get a second look despite his ties to the head coach.
2012 NFL DRAFT: I went back and looked at how often the Bills draft running backs, then stopped counting upon discovering that the team has drafted a running back in 14 of the past 17 seasons - a stretch that includes four first-round picks. While it's incredibly difficult to imagine the team spending an early-round pick on a runner this year, it shouldn't surprise anyone if they take a runner somewhere - particularly if Choice isn't re-signed and they're looking to give White some competition in the third slot.