For the past five seasons, the Buffalo Bills' running back position has largely boiled down to two names: Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller.
Sure, other faces have floated through the backfield in that time - Marshawn Lynch, Tashard Choice, and more recently, Anthony Dixon and Bryce Brown all have had their moments - but for the most part, Jackson and Spiller have comprised the identity of the Bills' offense. And, for the most part, it's been a productive stretch for that duo; in those five seasons, they've accumulated 7,034 rushing yards, 2,957 receiving yards, and 50 total touchdowns.
Their time together, however, may be coming to an end. Jackson, who will turn 34 next month, is still a useful and well-rounded player, but is finally showing signs of slowing down after eight rock-solid seasons in the backfield, and will probably need to have his role reduced a bit to stay fresh in 2015. Spiller, coming off of two highly disappointing seasons under Doug Marrone, is a pending unrestricted free agent, and may seek greener pastures on the open market. (A reunion with Chan Gailey, now the offensive coordinator for the New York Jets, will be widely speculated about for months.)
The time is ripe for a changing of the guard at the Bills' running back position, particularly with a new coaching staff in place. Rex Ryan and Greg Roman are going to run the football early and often next season, and they'll almost certainly have new personnel doing so.
- Age: 33 (34 on February 20)
- 2015 cap #: $2.6M ($2.5M savings if cut)
- 2014 snaps: 548 (51.6%)
After eight stellar seasons, Jackson has earned the right to retire a Bill (and, frankly, to play in a damn playoff game before he does). While he was setting career highs in both receptions (66) and receiving yards (501) in 2014, he also averaged a career-low 3.7 yards per carry. Jackson is far more useful now as a passing-down back than he is as an early-down runner, and that might be the role he plays as his career winds down. It's still a big role, mind you; it just lessens the strain on his body.
- Age: 27 (28 on August 5)
- 2015 cap #: unrestricted free agent
- 2014 snaps: 188 (17.7%)
He was highly disappointing as a rookie in 2010, and then only barely showed signs of life in 2011 before an explosive, Pro Bowl campaign in 2012. Expectations were high entering 2013, but he regressed in his first year in the Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett offense, and then bottomed out last year, largely due to a broken collarbone that cost him half of the season. Now, the new Bills offense doesn't fit what Spiller does well. GM Doug Whaley has said that the Bills would like to bring Spiller back, but it's hard to imagine that even the allure of playing for a coach like Ryan will be enough to prevent Spiller from looking for an offense that will tailor itself to his considerable strengths. The writing appears to be on the wall.
- Age: 27 (28 on September 24)
- 2015 cap #: $1.17M ($833K savings if cut)
- 2014 snaps: 219 (20.6%), 261 (55.7%) on special teams
It didn't take long for Dixon to emerge as a fan favorite, thanks to his easygoing, funny, and entertaining personality, his tenacious running style, and his big plays (two blocked punts) on special teams. He solidly has a place on this (and any) football team because of that special teams ability, and his familiarity with incoming offensive coordinator Roman helps him as well, but Dixon is not considered a lead back. In a vacuum, he could conceivably play the role of early-down foil to Jackson, and he may end up with that opportunity, but the Bills can probably find a more explosive (and younger) runner for that role.
- Age: 23 (24 on May 14)
- 2015 cap #: $660K ($660K savings if cut)
- 2014 snaps: 117 (11.0%)
Acquired in a 2014 draft day trade, Brown spent most of last season on the inactive list, only managing to crack the lineup during the period of weeks that Spiller was sidelined. He is an excellent athlete, but has only average vision, and is a fumble risk due to the way he carries the football. Brown is still under contract heading into the 2015 season, and there's still enough upside that he's certainly worth giving a shot at an increased role, but this is not a player that the Bills should be banking on to emerge as a lead back, particularly in a power running scheme.
Right now, the Bills' offensive backfield is filled with role players: Jackson's a passing down specialist; Spiller, who may not be back, is the big-play back; Dixon is the power runner and special teams ace; and Brown is the intriguing athlete with upside, but who can't seem to manage to snag playing time. The days of the every-down back in the NFL are gone, but the Bills could very much use a lead back - one that can handle the physical rigors of a Roman offense, and who can soak up what Jackson brings to the table as a blocker and receiver and eventually contribute in that area, as well.