The speculation surrounding C.J. Spiller’s future started with a Jason La Canfora throwaway line. The CBS Sports insider wrote that as training camp claims running backs, the Buffalo Bills could and should start fielding trade calls. Spiller, after all, is entering the final year of his rookie contract.
No, that’s not it. The Spiller speculation began when he was reportedly the subject of a draft trade feeler back in May, with the Philadelphia Eagles trying to reel him in. When the Bills showed little interest, they settled for Darren Sproles.
Nope, we’re getting warmer, but still not quite there. Maybe the speculation began shortly before that, when Bills general manager Doug Whaley attempted to trade up in the draft for Carlos Hyde. The 49ers snatched him off the board instead at 57th overall, making Hyde the third prospect selected at his position.
We could keep going further back to find ground zero for the Spiller leaving Buffalo movement, but it’s a fruitless search. All around Spiller there’s uncertainty, for both his short- and long-term future. He knows it too, and when asked about the possibility of playing his football somewhere that isn’t Buffalo he’s spouted the usual company lines, voicing love for the city and his teammates. But even the most dedicated NFL quote robots have their weak moments, as Spiller did a few days ago.
“Until anything happens, I’m excited to be with the Bills and hopefully I’ll be around for this coming season.”
Beyond this season, Spiller could quickly become a victim of the changing running back landscape. One that’s shrinking financially, and one where worn products are discarded quickly before getting paid.
But right now, for these Bills and this 2014 season, there’s only one sensible option: keeping C.J. Spiller.
The exception would be if they could get a second-round pick in a trade, which is the high water mark for draft value at running back. This year Bishop Sankey was the first running back selected way down at 54th overall, a new record wait for the position. It was the second straight year the draft didn’t hear a running back’s name called until round two.
That draft reality will make it exceedingly hard to get a top of the market return for Spiller right now. So he stays, which is best conclusion to an offseason of shoulder shrugging.
He stays because the Bills are a team that needs to win now. Immediately, which is what was communicated when first- and fourth-round picks next spring were shipped off for Sammy Watkins.
He stays because the fate of EJ Manuel in his second season will also determine the future employment of head coach Doug Marrone. Manuel needs an explosive playmaker who can create after the catch, and as many sets of hands to trust as possible after nine interceptions in only 10 starts, a stretch when he also completed just 58.8 percent of his passes with a per attempt rate of 6.4 yards.
He stays because despite the depth around him, Spiller remains a blazing fast home run threat when used properly. Fred Jackson had a fine season in 2013 with 1,277 total yards and a career single-season high 10 touchdowns, but age showed when his YPC dropped below 4.0 in eight games. Anthony Dixon is a short-yardage pounder, and the wild card is newly-acquired Bryce Brown, whose skillset is similar to Spiller’s with one significant flaw: fumbles. Over his two years in Philadelphia, Brown fumbled four times on 190 carries.
He stays because 2013 Spiller isn’t the real Spiller. Though he only missed one game, Spiller was severely restricted by an ankle injury last year, which all but eliminated his ability to cut abruptly and shake defenders. Recency bias erases the Spiller we knew in 2012. That was a running back who ran for 1,244 yards on only 207 attempts, a whopping average of 6.0 per carry. It was a season when Spiller forced 66 missed tackles, five behind Adrian Peterson on 138 fewer touches. That Spiller could be ready for a bounce-back season now.
Most of all, he stays because Buffalo hasn’t seen playoff football since 1999.