C.J. Spiller, one of the most enigmatic Buffalo Bills players in recent memory, finds himself at a career crossroad as he enters free agency.
In 2012, Spiller had one of the most exciting seasons for a Bills running back in recent memory, totaling 1,703 yards from scrimmage in becoming one of only 14 running backs to surpass 1,500 total yards from scrimmage in a season since 2010. He had 12 runs of more than 20 yards, the second-most that season. Spiller also averaged 6.0 yards per carry, only the third running back (Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles being the other two) to do that since 2010. Even during his injury-plagued 2013 season, Spiller had nine rushes of 20-plus yards, again the second-highest total in the league.
For me, the magic of Spiller's 2012 season has always obscured my judgment of his Bills career. Spiller was the rare running back selected as a Top 10 pick for a reason, and when healthy and properly utilized, he's as explosive a big-play threat as exists in the NFL.
Despite this ceiling, however, Spiller has often disappointed; he's failed to develop the vision and patience to consistently move the chains, and recurring injuries have also been a problem. His immense upside, coupled with consistency and durability issues, will undoubtedly create a wide range of opinions amongst NFL teams if and when Spiller hits free agency.
Spiller will be 28 years old in August. Since 2010, a running back has gained 1,000 total yards from scrimmage in a single season 114 times. Only 30 of these seasons have come from a running back 28 years or older, and 17 of those 30 were by 28 year-old running backs.
Previous free agent running backs
Despite Spiller's uniqueness, it is still necessary to compare this year's free agent runners to those from years past. We're talking about a position that has become, arguably, the least-valued (in terms of veteran salaries) position on the field, with players having short careers and often falling off very quickly. This is demonstrated by the fact that only seven running backs have veteran contracts valued at over $4 million per year, with all except Jamaal Charles' signed before 2012.
Jets running back Chris Johnson was the only 2014 free agent running back to reach $4 million per year on his contract. Johnson, who was 28 upon signing and turned 29 years old in September of 2014, received a two-year contract with a $3 million signing bonus and $1 million first-year salary. Johnson received this relatively meager contract after playing 32 straight games and gaining over 1,400 total yards in each of the two previous seasons, while scoring a combined 16 touchdowns.
The next two largest 2014 free agent contracts, signed by Donald Brown and Toby Gerhart, both averaged $3.5 million per year - but neither player has the talent level or past production of Spiller.
In 2013, Reggie Bush and Steven Jackson both signed contracts averaging $4 million per year, with $5 million and $4 million guaranteed, respectively. Bush, who like Spiller was 28 at the time, was coming off of 1,382 and 1,278-yard seasons, with 15 combined touchdowns, and he only missed one game in those seasons. Jackson was entering his age-30 season when he signed with Atlanta, but was coming off strong seasons of 1,478 and 1,366 total yards, with 10 combined touchdowns. Like Bush, he had also only missed one game during the two previous seasons.
2015 free agent running backs
This is a relatively strong class. DeMarco Murray, who led the league in rushing last year, headlines the group, with Spiller, Mark Ingram, Shane Vereen, Ryan Mathews, breakout year player Justin Forsett, and Frank Gore rounding out the most prominent names.
Murray may possibly demand a contract at the $7 million, elite-level threshold mentioned earlier. But everyone else, while demonstrating a high level of production at one time, comes with question marks related to consistency or injuries. With five of those players entering free agency for the first time (Murray, Spiller, Ingram, Vereen, and Mathews), it will be interesting to see if 2015 follows precedent from the past two years, when tiers formed around $4 million per year (with Bush, Jackson, and Johnson) and $3.5 million per year (with Gerhart and Brown).
Spiller's consistent production does not equal the level of Bush, Jackson, or Johnson, and he's part of a deep stable of free agent options. Still, it's hard not to think that Spiller's talent and past elite production will entice at least one team to spend more freely than recent teams have when pursuing free agent running backs. Based on this, I think it is reasonable to expect Spiller to receive at least $4 million per year - and maybe more, depending on the team bidding. (The New York Jets, with former Bills coach Chan Gailey running their offense, have already been linked to Spiller and have over $48 million in cap space.)
If the Bills do not end up using the franchise tag on Jerry Hughes, they will have considerable cap flexibility for 2015 and most likely 2016, depending on how new contract extensions are structured. With Bush's four year, $16 million contract (with $5 million guaranteed) as the baseline, the Bills could hopefully retain Spiller with a contract in the range of four years for, at maximum, $18-20 million.
If the Bills utilized their 2015 cap space and paid Spiller with a lump-sum roster bonus, rather than prorating it, they could keep Spiller while greatly limiting their future dead money risk if he loses a step in 2016 or 2017. A four-year, $20 million contract structured along the lines of a $6 million 2015 roster bonus, with salaries of $2 million in 2015 and then $4 million for each of the remaining years, would surpass Bush's total package by $4 million (increasing the average by $1 million), while beating his guaranteed money by $3 million.