For the vast majority of four years now (going on five), the Buffalo Bills' running back situation has remained static, and rather productive to boot. In fact, Buffalo's running game has become consistently better in each of those four seasons; they were 18th in rushing in 2010, 13th in 2011, sixth in 2012 and ranked No. 2 a year ago.
All good things, however, must come to an end. The Bills, barring some sort of out-of-left-field draft day trade, will feature the same backfield duo for a fifth straight year in 2014 - but by the time 2015 rolls around, it's possible that the team could see wholesale change at the position. That should help to explain why the Bills focused on bringing in a healthy number of high-end running back prospects for pre-draft visits this spring.
Talent on hand
The two running backs that have defined Buffalo's backfield for the last four years, of course, are Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. In that time frame, working mostly in tandem, Jackson and Spiller have combined for 6,209 rushing yards (at 4.77 yards per carry), 2,331 receiving yards (at 8.04 yards per reception), and 44 total touchdowns. They are therefore responsible for 40 percent of Buffalo's offensive yardage in that time frame, as well as one-third of their offensive touchdowns.
Jackson, the long-time fan favorite, turned 33 years old in February and is entering the final year in a three-year contract extension he signed in May of 2012. Aside from a few more nagging injuries than he was accustomed to early in his career, Jackson has not shown many signs of slowing down, but it's tremendously difficult to forecast a 33-year-old running back more than a year into the future in the NFL. He set a career high with nine rushing touchdowns in 2013, and will likely remain the heartbeat of Buffalo's offense for at least one more season.
Spiller, who turns 27 in August, is more often mentioned in fan generated draft-day trade scenarios than he is as a potential long-term solution for the Bills at running back. It hasn't helped that, while playing with a nagging ankle injury, he struggled to snugly fit into the Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett offense in 2013 - and that's the general view of his play despite his rushing for 933 yards. His 4.6 yards per carry average was by far his lowest since a 74-carry rookie season in 2010. Spiller's rookie deal has an opt-out clause after this season, and barring an early contract extension, he is very likely to hit the open market next spring.
The only other noteworthy name on the depth chart for the Bills is Anthony Dixon, the free agent signing from San Francisco that only played 82 snaps of offense for the 49ers last season. He's seen as a depth option and potentially as a quality addition for the team's beleaguered special teams coverage units, but probably shouldn't be considered a viable long-term option at running back for the Bills.
Need assessment: Long View
The Bills, without a doubt, have a need at running back. It's just not an immediate need; Jackson and Spiller are obviously capable of handling the workload for at least one more season. That makes things a bit awkward, because running back is a position that's drafted for immediate impact; you never hear of a "project" running back. If the Bills draft a running back too early, they'd be missing out on quality at other positions for a guy that, in terms of playing time, could effectively be redshirting for a year. But they absolutely need to establish some long-term direction at running back sooner rather than later.
Buffalo is clearly aware of its long-term need at running back, because they raised a few eyebrows by hosting six rushing prospects on pre-draft visits this spring. The selection ranged from early-round prospects (Carlos Hyde of Ohio State) to middle-round prospects (Jeremy Hill of LSU, Terrance West of Towson, Lache Seastrunk of Baylor and Jerick McKinnon of Georgia Southern) to obscure later-round names (Terrance Cobb from the University of the Cumberlands). Hyde is a likely Round 2 pick, which might be a bit rich for Buffalo's blood, so the other names are the most intriguing ones entering draft weekend.
Aside from Hyde, the other big-name running backs to keep an eye on are Bishop Sankey of Washington and Tre Mason of Auburn. All are likely to be long gone by the end of the third round, along with LSU's Hill, who might be the best power back in the draft.
Charles Sims of West Virginia, Andre Williams of Boston College, De'Anthony Thomas of Oregon, Ka'Deem Carey of Arizona, Dri Archer of Kent State and Devonta Freeman of Florida State are among the other notable middle-round running back prospects that the Bills could draft and stash for a year until their 2015 outlook becomes clearer.
Lots of fans like to speculate that the Bills should trade Spiller - but would it really be wise for a young offense to rid itself of its most talented running back to, instead, roll with the 33-year-old Jackson and a middle-round pick? Particularly in an offense as run-heavy as Buffalo's?