When the Buffalo Bills spent the No. 9 overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft on Clemson running back C.J. Spiller, they were in the market for the ultimate home run threat. Spiller ran a 4.37-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine and at Clemson he’d run for 5.9 yards per carry and averaged 11.4 yards per catch, an astounding number for a player primarily catching passes out of the backfield.
With that kind of explosiveness already such an integral part of Spiller’s game, even if he showed up sparingly in the Bills’ system while he learned the game, opposing defenses would be forced to respect his speed and scheme to stop him. However, the hope was always that he’d pick up on the nuances of the position and develop into the kind of game-breaking running back that you spend a Top 10 pick on.
In 2012, we got a glimpse of what exactly that could mean, as Spiller found his rhythm and put up massive numbers. He ran for 6.0 yards per carry on his way to 1,244 yards rushing and then added another 459 yards on 43 catches out of the backfield, and every single time he touched the football he must have given defensive coordinators heart attacks on his way to eight total touchdowns with half of those scores coming from 30 yards out or more.
But in 2013 those numbers regressed a little bit and then in 2014 he missed seven games due to injury and largely took a backseat to Fred Jackson and Anthony Dixon. And when the Bills let him walk in free agency it wasn’t particularly surprising to anyone.
Where he landed, however, may have given Spiller his best chance ever at becoming the star the Bills had once dreamed.
The New Orleans Saints have never been a destination for a workhorse running back as long as Sean Payton has been their head coach, but we’re not exactly talking about a workhorse back here. Saints offenses are prolific and when you combine Drew Brees at quarterback with the NFL’s tendency to favor a high volume of air traffic, running back feels like less a point of emphasis.
That’s not to say that there hasn’t been success, because there has. Reggie Bush certainly had his moments with the Saints and Mark Ingram is coming off a career year. Payton always found ways to get Darren Sproles the football and Pierre Thomas was as reliable a receiver as you’ll find out of the backfield.
And yet all those names (plus a couple more) never really became stars with the Saints largely because Payton’s system was designed to overwhelm defenses with options and get playmakers the ball in space. So when the Saints spent four years and $16 million on C.J. Spiller as he comes off the worst year of his career since he was a rookie, it’s probably safe to assume that Payton sees potential.
With Spiller turning 28 just before the start of the 2015 season, he’s still got at least a few years left before production tends to fall for running backs as they enter their 30s, and if Payton can find ways to get a guy like Spiller the ball in space and keep him healthy, it’s not hard to see them actually getting a return on a pretty hefty investment for an injured, underperforming running back.
Under Doug Marrone and Chan Gailey, the Bills were never really innovative enough to get Spiller going in creative ways. Payton most certainly is.
And as he hits the edge at the top of his 4.37-speed or lines up at wide receiver to catch a rocket screen in stride, it’ll be clear to see why Payton tabbed him as the next potential dynamic playmker in New Orleans. Or maybe it’ll just be a blur.