It is well past time that C.J. Spiller, the No. 9 overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, becomes a centerpiece for the Buffalo Bills' offense - and that the Bills finally understand that "centerpiece" does not need to mean "workhorse."
Spiller enters the 2014 season as one of the most-discussed players on the Bills' roster, and not just because he is among the team's most recognizable faces; it's because, now more than four years into his pro career and with 2015 free agency looming, Spiller has yet to emerge as the franchise cornerstone he is talented enough to become.
That isn't entirely Spiller's fault, of course. For nearly two years, in 2010 and 2011, Spiller was an afterthought on offense; the team was still juggling Marshawn Lynch on the roster for the first month of Spiller's rookie season, and Fred Jackson began a four-year stretch of peak productivity as soon as Lynch was traded.
Spiller has only produced top-level numbers with Jackson out of the lineup; that began in the second half of 2011, when Spiller was much more prominently featured, and continued through most of the 2012 season. Jackson missed a combined 12 games in those seasons, and Spiller contributed 1,690 rushing yards (at a whopping 5.8 yards per rush), 646 receiving yards, and 13 touchdowns in a 22-game stretch.
Facing massive expectations in 2013, Spiller managed to disappoint with 933 rushing yards (at 4.6 yards per carry), 185 receiving yards, and two total touchdowns. This despite the fact that Jackson played all 16 games while Spiller spent most of the season battling an ankle injury, that a new offense installed by Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett only had room for one running back at a time (though injuries may have influenced that), and that the running attack was limited by the weaknesses of an offensive line that has since been significantly re-tooled.
It's also true that Spiller can be better, and more consistent. Staying healthy will help that endeavor, and because of his playing style, Spiller must continue to stay as patient as possible on basic, bread-and-butter runs. But the entity that has the most power in turning Spiller into an elite threat is the coaching staff.
Under no circumstance should a team as loaded at running back as the Bills were - and they're even deeper there this season - not find a way to play a top talent more often. Their list of excuses is empty now, as the team has such a wealth of depth at running back that they should no longer be concerned with the risk of losing half (or all) of their back rotation by playing them simultaneously. Spiller has played a combined 956 snaps in the last two seasons (44 percent of total snaps); six Bills players exceeded that mark in 2013 alone. It seems fairly sensible that the Bills should be using one of their biggest playmakers far more often.
The Bills want to be an offense that runs a lot of plays, and in so doing run the football as often as possible. With more mouths to feed out of the backfield, Spiller will be an important, if marginalized, part of that conversation. But it is vital that the Bills expand his role far beyond that, finding creative ways to use a unique talent within the context of the offense they're trying to build. Spiller will be 27 in August. It's time for him to arrive - but it's also high time that the Bills do everything possible to help him get there.
This post kicks off a series in which we'll discuss the ten most important Bills players entering the new season. We'll update this list each time a new entry in the series posts.
1. coming July 18
2. coming July 16
3. coming July 14
4. coming July 11
5. coming July 9
6. coming July 7
7. coming July 3
8. coming July 1
9. coming June 26
10. RB C.J. Spiller