ORCHARD PARK, NY - DECEMBER 18: C.J. Spiller #28 of the Buffalo Bills carries the ball during their NFL game against the Miami Dolphins at Ralph Wilson Stadium on December 18, 2011 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Earlier this week, when we were talking about exactly why the Buffalo Bills were interested in a speed receiver like T.J. Graham, we also talked about how Graham would fit in with the team's top five offensive weapons. Those players, of course, are running backs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, wide receivers Stevie Johnson and David Nelson, and tight end Scott Chandler.
An interesting byproduct of that discussion was an off-blog conversation I had with a friend, who spent his time arguing that Johnson and Jackson were "by far" the team's top two players at the position, and that the rest were just "bit" players.
I disagreed. They're clearly the most proven and most consistent of the bunch, but just saying that doesn't capture the reality of the offense.
Here's a stat that may mildly surprise you: in the last two years (both coached by Chan Gailey), Spiller has averaged more touches per game (8.13) than Johnson (4.94) by a significant margin. "But Brian," you may think, "Spiller's average was buttressed by his becoming the primary running back after Jackson got hurt last year." And you'd be right, dear reader.
Here's a stat that may shock you: even before Spiller took over for Jackson (do you remember griping about how little the former No. 9 overall pick was being used?), the running back was averaging more touches per game (5.58) than the receiver (4.92).
If we're ranking these players based on their "go-to-ability," if you will, then it's possible that Johnson would rank ahead of Spiller (and we'd obviously be using targets to quantify that; feel free to do that research if you're so inclined). I'm more interested in production, and so far under Gailey, Spiller has gotten the ball in his hands more than Johnson has.
That shouldn't be surprising. Spiller is a running back. He doesn't have to create separation from a cornerback and have a quarterback see him amidst chaos and fire an accurate pass his way; the quarterback can just turn around and hand the football to him. Wes Welker led the league with 122 receptions last year; his 7.88 touches per game was significantly lower than the 9.36 figure Danny Woodhead sported the year prior. Calvin Johnson had fewer touches than Maurice Morris last year.
For all that we talk about the NFL being a pass-first league becoming more open to spread concepts, running backs are still the workhorses in the big leagues. That's why I rank the Bills' offensive skill players as follows:
1. Fred Jackson: He more than doubles any other name on this list in per-game touches, with 17.77. He is clearly Option 1 in Gailey's offense, and he's proven that he deserves to stay there until he can no longer hold that role.
2. C.J. Spiller: It is fundamentally easier for Gailey to get the ball into Spiller's hands than it is to anyone else but Jackson's. It's on the coach and the player to get more bang for their buck, particularly with Jackson back as the chief ball-carrier.
3. Stevie Johnson: Easily Buffalo's best play-maker at receiver, Johnson can be more consistent, but it's unreasonable to expect him to significantly expand on already-very-good production (for a receiver).
4. David Nelson: Nelson's per-game touch average doubled from his rookie season to last season, and the nature of the way he's utilized - he's the team's best possession receiver - could allow him to take another big step forward, though it's tough to imagine him catching Stevie.
5. Scott Chandler: Chandler has a chance to be as productive as Nelson was a year ago if the offense is clicking; Nelson didn't even average four touches per game. The big tight end is definitely capable of that, as he's a tough cover and a good style complement to the guys above him.
How would you rank these five players?