2012 was an interesting year for the Buffalo Bills at the running back position. The team's best player in 2011, Fred Jackson, fell off of his torrid pace from the previous season while dealing with a slew of injuries throughout the season. C.J. Spiller, despite an alarming lack of touches as the team insisted on force-feeding both backs when healthy no matter what, emerged as one of the stars at his position - and quite frankly, that helped to get his head coach fired.
Entering the off-season, the Bills have a good amount of clarity at the position. That does not mean, however, that changes can't be made.
- Age: 25 (26 in August 2013)
- Contract: Signed through the 2014 season. Owed a $250,000 workout bonus this season, and is scheduled to make $1.3 million in base salary.
Spiller gained 1,703 yards from scrimmage on just 250 touches (an average of 15.6 touches for 106.4 yards per game) with eight touchdowns. He proved that he's a matchup-proof back, capable of making big plays against the league's best teams regardless of how well his own team is playing. There are obvious limitations to his game - he'll never be a great pass protector, and his size will limit his effectiveness in select spots - but there's no getting around the fact that Spiller is a star.
Now the kid just needs opportunity. The lack of opportunity last season eventually snowballed on former head coach Chan Gailey; his under-utilization of Spiller ranks a close second behind his won/loss record as the biggest pet peeve of his three-year run as coach. The new coaching staff, led by Doug Marrone, should only need one quick run-through of a few film reels before they realize that Spiller's the guy around which Nathaniel Hackett's offense should be designed. We can safely expect Spiller's workload to increase next season - probably significantly.
The questions with Spiller entering 2013, then, are as follows: is he up to the task of carrying the full load for 16 games? Or will his production slip as more focus - from defenses and within the game plan - shifts to his shoulders? The good news is we're likely going to find out next season.
- Age: 31 (32 in February 2013)
- Contract: Signed through the 2014 season. Owed a $300,000 roster bonus at the start of the new league year, plus a $100,000 workout bonus. Scheduled to make $2.15 million in base salary in 2013.
Give Matt Warren a little credit for telling it like it is: when Jackson signed his lucrative three-year contract extension last May, MRW questioned the wisdom of the monetary investment, predicting that Jackson was on the verge of beginning the descent typical to the back end of a good career.
Jackson was not anywhere near the productive player that he was in 2011, thanks in large part to an LCL sprain in Week 1, a mid-season concussion and an MCL injury that cost him the remainder of the season in mid-December. When he was on the field (and not fully healthy at any point during the season), he averaged just 3.8 yards per carry - and as the team stubbornly gave him the ball anyway at the expense of the much better Spiller, the team ultimately lost big at the position.
Still, Jackson has something left in the tank, and with Spiller primed to assume a feature-back work load, Jackson can play a complementary role, ideal for keeping the veteran healthier and bettering his shelf life. Teammates have described him as the "heartbeat" of the offense as its top emotional leader, and there are elements to Jackson's game (chiefly pass protection and short-yardage ability) that the team still needs. Jackson will be here next season, but it would be shocking if he re-claimed his old form.
- Age: 28 (29 in November 2013)
- Contract: Unrestricted Free Agent
Stashed on the roster largely due to his connection to Gailey (both were at Georgia Tech), Choice had some productive moments in 2012, but those were few and far between as he was used chiefly as a part-time injury replacement. With Gailey now out of the picture, it's looking more likely than not that Choice will not be retained as an unrestricted free agent - though the team could certainly do worse in that third back slot.
- Age: 23 (24 in February 2013)
- Contract: Signed through the 2014 season. Scheduled to make $405,000 in base salary in 2013.
Signed to a reserve/future contract in early January, Brown is a former undrafted free agent out of Pittsburgh that tried out for a camp spot in May, was released, and then was brought back as a practice squad add late in the season when Jackson went on IR. He'll likely be in camp next summer, where he'll compete for the third back role.
Free agency outlook: The team could choose to retain Choice for another camp battle, but with Gailey out of the picture, that seems less likely than it did this time a year ago. With the top two spots at the position settled, don't expect the Bills to pursue any free agent runners.
2013 NFL Draft outlook: With a 26-year-old leading rusher backed up by a battle-tested veteran complement, the Bills may end up looking for a third back - but if they draft one, it won't be until the middle or late rounds, and they'll likely focus on a complementary-type player to Spiller as a long-term replacement for Jackson if they consider the position at all.
Discussion topics: As usual, here are two questions we'd like y'all to address as conversation starters in the comments section:
- On a scale of 1-10, rank your level of confidence in Spiller's ability to handle a 20-25 touches per game work load ("1" being very low confidence, "10" being very high confidence).
- How much of a priority should the team place on finding an eventual complementary-to-Spiller replacement for Jackson?