CJ Spiller Spaces Out

Updated: October 8, 2011

Chris Brown (not the Bills Chris Brown [nor the Rhianna socking CB]), of Smart Football and Grantland recently wrote an article on the latter’s site explaining why players like Darren Sproles are having success, and why most of the league’s top performers at RB are quicker, more elusive players who can make guys miss when they get outside the tackles, such as LeSean McCoy, Ray Rice, Matt Forte. One player missing from that list who was drafted higher than all of them is CJ

Athletically, CJ Spiller would be close to the prototype of a space running back. He has the quickness and speed of Darren Sproles on a much bigger 5-11 frame, and Spiller’s highlight reel runs should still be fresh enough in everyone’s mind to know that he possesses the ability to accelerate to a sprint in the instantaneous manner of a Japanese crotch rocket passing a Buick on the expressway. Combine this with the fact that Gailey’s offense is built on the principles of exploiting space, CJ Spiller should be regularly smoking too slow middle linebackers for big gains near the sideline.

As you all know, it clearly hasn’t worked out that way. While I wouldn’t say bust is anywhere near appropriate, Spiller has certainly been a disappointment. Just when CJ shows a flash of the aforementioned brilliance that made him the number 9 selection in 2010, he will seem to disappear the next week to the point where the announcers are so unprepared for Spiller to step on the field that they attribute his runs to Fred Jackson. Subsequently, the Bills commentariat has generally had little patience with Spiller’s behind schedule development and are even beginning to use him as the central piece of evidence against the administration of this site’s patron namesake inept drafting.*

Two questions naturally arise from Spiller’s lack of production. First, why is such a gifted player in a seemingly favorable situation not performing at a high level?  And second, is the reason for his lack of production something we can attribute to being a late bloomer, or is he destined to spend is NFL career in mediocrity?

Let’s look at the first issue. While the athletic ability and a good situation may appear to be things working in Spiller’s favor, they might have actually worked against him. Spiller’s change of direction was lethal in college and was the reason he was able to break countless 50 yard plus touchdowns. Watch some of the footage, and you’ll quickly see that other than speed, the most important factor was timing. With the huge jump in speed from the ACC to the NFL, it’s clear that he doesn’t have it down yet. He’s definitely improved since last year, but the fact that Fred Jackson’s sense of NFL timing is as good as anyone’s make it look that much inferior in comparison. The decisiveness is something that one would think will improve (especially under Fred’s tutelage), but it’s no sure thing. I think this will be a main determining factor in how good a RB CJ turns out to be.

Regarding Fred Jackson, Fred’s been so good at everything that Gailey’s decided to give him almost the entire workload. I envisioned something closer to a 60-40 split going into the season, but it’s been almost impossible to deny Jackson carries. Because while CJ Spiller fits the stereotype of an effective space player in Gailey’s space attacking offense, it should be noted that Fred Jackson fills this role, albeit in a somewhat unorthodox fashion. Fred Jackson thrives in space, but not by being quick. Rather, Jackson is so well versed in what the technically correct way to be a defender that it is hard wired so that subtle actions like shoulder dekes and drop steps flow naturally and at exactly the right time. It’s quite remarkable how effective Jackson is in space considering his speed and quickness are marginal at best. Subsequently, CJ has been left on the sideline more than most people would have thought. Of the two issues, this is one that’s almost certain to change at some point. Fred Jackson’s liable to miss some time, especially as an over age 30 RB with over 700 carries in his career. CJ will get his chance, he just needs to be patient.

And when he does get the chance, Spiller will be playing in an offense that’s not only well suited for his individual strengths as a player, but also aptly equipped to attack defenses in today’s NFL. At that point, it will be put up or shut up time for the former Clemson superstar, and will determine if he will go down in Buffalo Bills history as a key part of the Bills’ attack or the latest of a long line of Bills first round picks who fail to meet expectations.

*One of the arguments that irks me the most is the idea that Bills are still bad drafters because they drafted a RB in the first round for the third time in a decade. It’s an easy sign to point to, but also incredibly lazy. Buddy Nix had no connection to the previous GMs, much less is going to concern himself with the stigmas of previous Bills talent evaluation failures. If Spiller doesn’t work out, it will be ironic in a narrative sense, but not much more.