Justifying the C.J. Spiller Hype
After an offseason filled with effusive praise from Sean Payton and his coaching staff, C.J. Spiller has been one of the fastest risers up fantasy draft boards this spring. With the Saints only adding a seventh-round pick to their backfield after multiple departures via free agency, Spiller is primed to be unleashed after two years of being held back in Buffalo.
There is little doubt Spiller is going to be put in a position to produce in New Orleans, as I will outline below. The question then becomes if that production is worth his increasing price.
Of the Saints’ 154 running back targets last year, 106 (68.8%) were aimed at Pierre Thomas and Travaris Cadet, both of whom are no longer with the team. Those two combined to turn 83 of the targets into receptions. Given that Mark Ingram had his own healthy slice of the backfield’s passing pie (29 catches on 36 targets), it’s reasonable to expect that most of the opportunities vacated by Thomas and Cadet will be taken by Spiller. His only other real competition in the backfield outside of Ingram, Khiry Robinson, is limited in the passing game.
Even just a mere 55 percent of those vacated targets (58) would represent a career high for Spiller, who saw an average of 40 targets over the first five seasons of his career in Buffalo. What’s more, the Saints’ 154 total running back targets in 2014 was on the lower end of their average (165) over the same five year time frame. Compare that to the Bills, who have averaged just 116 running back targets per season over Spiller’s career.
The Saints’ running back target total was even higher when Payton had a Spiller-esque dynamic receiving talent to work with in Darren Sproles. In his three years in New Orleans from 2011-2013, Sproles averaged 101 of the team’s 182 running back targets per year. While I don’t expect Spiller to see triple-digit targets, it seems abundantly clear that he is going to be closer to that target total than his average of 40 in Buffalo. Payton, who has constantly mentioned getting Spiller the ball in space this offseason, is primed to use him in the same role as Sproles.
What makes this especially intriguing is that despite the fact that Spiller was consistently misused in Buffalo, his efficiency in the passing game has been remarkably similar to Saints’ running backs who have been playing in a system much more conducive to statistical production, as illustrated in the chart below:
What does this mean? Increased volume generally leads to decreased efficiency for running backs, but less so in the passing game than the running game. Spiller is arguably the most talented back Sean Payton has worked with in New Orleans. Lest we forget the former Clemson Tiger was a top ten pick. I’d be willing to bet that he will see at least a slight increase in his passing game efficiency along with what seems like a guaranteed target volume increase under Payton’s offensive expertise.
In the two years he saw 200 carries in Buffalo, Spiller averaged a combined 5.32 yards per carry. Ingram is still the clear lead dog in this backfield for early-down work, meaning Spiller is unlikely to eclipse that 200 carry total. However, given their respective builds, he should see significantly more than the 63 carries that Sproles averaged in his three years as a Saint, when he finished as the PPR RB5, RB22, and RB23.
Assuming health, those latter two seasons where Sproles finished as a low-end PPR RB2 seem like a floor for Spiller given the volume increase he should see. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect him to pick up 75 percent of the receiving production left behind by Thomas and Cadet, which last year would have been 62 receptions on 80 targets (Spiller’s previous career high in receptions was 43). That is not even taking into account what should be an increased team target total for running backs based on recent history. This has led some beat writers to go as far as to say that Spiller will see more touches than Ingram this year.
So this all begs the question: is his potential increase in production worth the real change we have seen in his price? In 153 drafts that have started after May 15th on MyFantasyLeague.com, Spiller has on average been taken 66th overall, making him the 24th running back off the board.
While that cost may continue to rise as articles like this one are written over the summer, his current cost is hardly prohibitive. Even producing at the level of Sproles’ bottom two seasons in New Orleans would justify that price, leaving room for significant equity, especially in PPR leagues. I might hesitate to roll with him as more than my RB3 in standard scoring leagues, but I think he is an excellent RB2 in PPR leagues. Currently being drafted as an RB3, there is still time to hop on the bandwagon before the value is gone.
Follow Joey on Twitter @PFF_Joey