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C.J. Spiller and the speed back study

When the Buffalo Bills made Clemson running back C.J. Spiller their first-round draft pick a week ago this evening, a very large number of surprised fans rationalized the move with some form of the following thought: "running back isn't a need, but if Spiller is the next Chris Johnson, who cares?"

"The next Chris Johnson" has become a phrase thrown about in NFL Draft circles, as Johnson - the 5'11", 200-pound whiz kid that has absolutely torched the NFL in his first two professional seasons - has set a new gold standard for the NFL speed back. Teams everywhere are now searching for a dynamic, explosive playmaker out of their backfield, able to make plays with speed, agility and balance, as opposed to sheer brute strength. In a trendy league, the speed back is the new tall wide receiver, and prospects like Spiller are now a hot commodity.

Spiller, along with Lions rookie Jahvid Best, are the newest additions to an NFL speed back fraternity that could be looking at tremendously productive 2010 seasons. By my count, there are 13 small running backs poised to be significant parts of their team's attacks this season. Of the 11 that aren't rookies, all have had varying degrees of success in this league.

After the jump, we'll take a look at those 11 backs, all of whom have been successful and could be poised for much bigger and better things next season. Those players: Ahmad Bradshaw, Giants; Reggie Bush, Saints; Jamaal Charles, Chiefs; Jerome Harrison, Browns; the aforementioned Chris Johnson, Titans; Felix Jones, Cowboys; Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars; LeSean McCoy, Eagles; Ray Rice, Ravens; Steve Slaton, Texans; Darren Sproles, Chargers; Leon Washington, Seahawks.

First, a bit about the backs
is set to split carries with Brandon Jacobs once again in New York; he saw by far the most action of his career in 2009.

Bush saw the least amount of work of his entire disappointing career last season, but also enjoyed his most effective season, as he was a big-time post-season factor during the Saints' championship run.

Charles emerged as the Chiefs' go-to offensive weapon in 2009, enjoying a tremendous second-half run. He now has competition for carries, however, in the form of free agent signing Thomas Jones.

Harrison, too, emerged as a go-to threat for the Browns a year ago after rarely seeing the field early in his career. Denver import Peyton Hillis, rookie Montario Hardesty and a now-healthy James Davis - a former teammate of Spiller's - could steal touches, but Harrison looks like the primary back in Cleveland.

Johnson set the league on fire a year ago, rushing for 2,006 yards at 5.6 yards per carry, and is one of the elite backs in the game.

Jones has dealt with injuries in his first two seasons, but became a bigger part of Dallas' offense as his second season wore on. If he can stay healthy, he could have a break-out 2010 season.

Jones-Drew is one of the league's smallest backs, but he's also got a huge heart and a much more solid physical build than the majority of backs on this list. Therefore, he's got durability that many of these players lack, which has resulted in his emerging as a true NFL workhorse. He, too, is one of the game's elite rushers.

McCoy was the primary backup to Brian Westbrook a year ago in Philly, but Westbrook missed so much time that McCoy ended up seeing much more work than originally anticipated. With Westbrook out of Philly, McCoy is in line to get much more work in his second season.

Rice emerged out of a crowded Ravens backfield as a true workhorse back in the mold of Jones-Drew. Tremendously productive as both a rusher or a receiver, Rice should establish himself as one of the game's elite players in 2010.

Slaton had a fantastic rookie season, but was slowed by injuries, inconsistency and fumbling issues a year ago. Rookie Ben Tate (Auburn) looks to steal touches, but Slaton is still clearly Houston's best back.

Sproles is by a long shot the smallest player listed here, and as a result, he hasn't gotten much to do throughout his career. With Ryan Mathews set to become the Chargers' lead back, that trend will probably continue, though Sproles is too good to keep off the field entirely.

Washington is coming off a serious knee injury, and he was traded to Seattle on draft weekend. He'll factor significantly into a crowded backfield that already includes Justin Forsett and LenDale White.

There's a significant divide to be made here between "workhorse style speed backs" and "complementary style speed backs." Johnson is the only slender speed back that has emerged as a workhorse. Jones-Drew, Rice and Slaton have all had workhorse-type seasons and have the shorter, squattier builds of a true workhorse (though Slaton's body type is far more slender than both Rice and MJD). The rest of the group have had more complementary roles to this point in their career, and with Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch already on Buffalo's roster, Spiller looks to fit best in the complement camp, as well.

For the following study, we'll take averages of each back's best pro seasons to try to find a production outline of the "average NFL speed back." (For every back except Slaton and Washington, that "best season" was 2009.) We'll compute data that includes the workhorse numbers of Johnson, Jones-Drew, Rice and Slaton, and we'll compute data without those four workhorse seasons to give us a range. We'll look at these ranges in four categories: rushing, receiving, kick/punt returns and durability.

We'll go bullet points from this point forward to avoid getting verbose:

  • In their best seasons, these 12 backs averaged 187 carries per season. That's roughly 12 carries per game.
  • Removing the workhorse seasons (CJ, MJD, RR, SS), the remaining 8 backs averaged 132 carries per season. That's roughly 8 carries per game.
  • In their best seasons, these 12 backs averaged 940 rushing yards per season at 5 yards per carry. That's about 59 rushing yards per game.
  • Removing the workhorse seasons (CJ, MJD, RR, SS), the remaining 8 backs averaged 658 yards per season at 5 yards per carry. That's about 41 rushing yards per game.
  • In their best seasons, these 12 backs averaged 7 rushing TD per season. That's about one score every two weeks.
  • Removing the workhorse seasons (CJ, MJD, RR, SS), the remaining 8 backs averaged 5 rushing TD per season. That's about one score every three weeks.

More bullet points!

  • In their best seasons, these 12 backs averaged 44 receptions per season. That's 2.8 receptions per game.
  • Removing the workhorse seasons (CJ, MJD, RR, SS), the remaining 8 backs averaged 37 receptions per season. That's 2.3 receptions per game.
  • In their best seasons, these 12 backs averaged 358 receiving yards per season at 8.1 yards per reception. That's about 22 receiving yards per game.
  • Removing the workhorse seasons (CJ, MJD, RR, SS), the remaining 8 backs averaged 292 yards per season at 7.9 yards per reception. That's about 18 yards per game.
  • In their best seasons, these 12 backs averaged 1.5 receiving touchdowns per season. The data is the same when removing the four workhorse seasons (CJ, MJD, RR, SS). That's roughly one receiving score every eight weeks.

Since roles change as running backs gain prominence, we have now switched from looking at each back's best season to now examining each back's rookie season.

  • Throughout their careers, these 12 backs have combined for 16 career return touchdowns. 12 of those belong to the combined efforts of Bush, Sproles and Washington (four each).
  • These 12 backs averaged 20 combined kick and punt returns as rookies.
  • Only 7 of these 12 backs were considered rookie return specialists. Those 7 backs averaged 33 combined kick and punt returns during their rookie seasons.

Please note (*) that the below data has been adjusted in the case of Harrison, as he did not see significant enough playing time to warrant consideration until last season.

  • These 12 backs have missed a combined 54 games throughout 31 combined years* of playing experience. That equates to less than two games missed per year.
  • Players such as Jones-Drew and Johnson (two missed games combined) stand out for their durability, while others (such as Bush and Jones) have not been able to stay healthy at all.
  • Workhorse backs, on average, missed one game per season. Complementary backs, on average, missed over two games per season. That durability disparity essentially draws the line between workhorse and complement.

Outlining the ranges established above. The low number in each case is the average of a complementary back, while the high number is the average of both complementary and workhorse backs. Please note that Spiller is likely to land somewhere in between complement and workhorse.

  • RUSHING RANGE: 132-187 carries, 658-940 yards, 5-7 TD
  • RECEIVING RANGE: 37-44 receptions, 292-358 yards, 1-2 TD
  • RETURN RANGE: 20-33 combined kick and punt returns
  • DURABILITY RANGE: 1-2 games missed per season

First thing's first: Spiller needs to stay healthy. He managed to do that in college, but he also tends to run a bit upright, which leaves him open to taking big hits. Buffalo will need to be somewhat careful in making sure Spiller is healthy for 16 games.

In their best seasons, the majority of these backs - with the exception of the four previously defined workhorses - split carries with other backs. For now, I'm anticipating things on the conservative side of those ranges and expecting Spiller to approach the smaller numbers initially. If, like Charles, he becomes more effective as the season wears on, we could see him approach or exceed the high ranges in any or all categories.

If I had to guess - and I emphasize the word guess - Spiller's best chances of exceeding those ranges come in the receptions and returns categories. I still expect Jackson to assume the bulk of the rushing load, and Lynch should factor in as well. Unless Spiller establishes himself as a go-to weapon part-way through his rookie season, he will likely not receive enough carries to exceed the high end of the range.

Thoughts? Opinions? Guesses as to Spiller's likely rookie production? I'll tell you this - more than anything else, the touchdown totals excite me. These speed backs aren't necessarily getting a lot of touches every year, but they're still putting the ball in the paint. Buddy Nix was right - Spiller fits the mold of a guy who can score points for you. Here's hoping that plays out favorably on the field.