Why C.J. Spiller Isn't Worth Your First Round Pick

Unsustainable efficiency + Fewer Carries = No Thank You

No matter how you looked at C.J. Spiller last season, you were wrong. That is a certifiable fact.

Think Week 1 was a fluke? Nope, he goes off another 123 yards and two touchdowns in Week 2. Finally feeling confident about him as the Bills play Cleveland in Week 3? Oh, well let me give all of his carries to Fred Jackson for you. Just when you were finally starting to give up on him ever getting carries, Fred Jackson gets injured and he gets 22 in Week 10, but then he doesn't top 14 carries again for the next three weeks. 2012 C.J. Spiller was the Sopranos finale of fantasy backs.

Naturally, though, human beings tend to look for the good in people rather than the bad. Keanu Reeves still gets movie roles, after all. And fantasy owners have surely looked for the good in Spiller: he's currently sitting with an average draft position (ADP) of sixth overall among fantasy leagues. I know Spiller's good, but the centerpiece of your entire fantasy team?

We don't buy it. Spiller is only worth an early second round selection (or very late first round in leagues larger than 10 teams), and here's why.

Outliers, Outliers Everywhere

If you've been reading numberFire fantasy coverage over the past couple of days, you know that we love the statistic Net Expected Points, or NEP. NEP comes by measuring how many expected points would result from a drive containing the current play then determining how much a player's contribution on that play rose or lowered the drive's expected point value. Once the totals are added up from each play, we can find a player's overall NEP score as well as their average NEP score per play.

Spiller was the best running back in the league last season in average NEP per rush. Better than All Day AP. Better than Marshawn Lynch. Better than Jamaal Charles. The best. His 0.12 NEP/rush sits as the 14th best NEP/rush average among backs with 200 carries in a season since we first started keeping track of NEP in 2000. It's also the third-best mark since 2008 behind 2010's Jamaal Charles (0.19) and BenJarvus Green-Ellis (0.14).

So naturally, we must be pretty high on Spiller if he's so efficient, right? Well, it would be prettier if the top season NEP/rush earners list ahead of him didn't look like this.

PlayerYearNEP/RushNext Year NEP/R
Marshall Faulk20000.200.13
Jamaal Charles20100.190.01
Clinton Portis20020.180.16
DeAngelo Williams20080.180.02
Shaun Alexander20050.18-0.09
LaDanian Tomlinson20060.170.07
Priest Holmes20020.170.16
Priest Holmes20030.160.10
Clinton Portis20030.16-0.11
Marion Barber20070.15-0.04
BenJarvus Green-Ellis20100.140.03
Mike Anderson20050.130.02
Marshall Faulk20010.120.02

Note: For all players who did not play a full season the year after, such as Jamaal Charles' 2011, I went to the next full season. It's also worth noting that Mike Anderson never received more than 39 carries in a season again after posting 0.13 NEP/rush on 239 carries in 2005.

For some players, like Marshall Faulk or Priest Holmes, the success really did carry over to the next season. But they seem to be the exception rather than the rule, and football in 2003 was a lot more run-centric than in 2013 as well.

For everybody else, there are simply a bunch of average follow-up numbers across the board. Some, like 2005 Shaun Alexander, 2007 Marion Barber, or 2003 Clinton Portis, went from being one of the most efficient backs in the game to averaging worse than the league-average play. In 2006, Shaun Alexander's -0.09 NEP per rush was the third-worst figure among all backs with at least 250 carries that year, only ahead of Chester Taylor and Edgerrin James. I just gave a bunch of Seahawks fans a whole large heap of PTSD flashbacks.

Statistically, this makes sense. If you have an outlier season among the best efficiency years of all time, you're due to regress towards the mean at some point. Hot streaks are streaks for a reason; at some point, you cool off. Seeing as how I don't think C.J. Spiller is the second-coming of Bo Jackson (sorry), I tend to put him in the statistically-more likely category of falling to earth than becoming a Faulk or Holmes.

The Fred Jackson Problem

When we examined the unheralded backs we expect to reach 1000 yards rushing yesterday, I mentioned that it really didn't matter if Steven Jackson ran efficiently as long as he stayed consistent with his high carries. Unfortunately for Spiller, he doesn't exactly have that luxury.

Despite the reports of Spiller becoming the always, every down back in Buffalo, Fred Jackson is fully recovered from the LCL and MCL sprains that knocked him out last season. And despite his -0.18 NEP/rush mark last season, the Bills would be smart to use him. Before 2012, Jackson had never averaged lower than -0.04 NEP per rush, a not perfect but respectable figure. In 2011, Jackson managed 0.02 NEP/rush on 170 carries while platooning in the backfield with Splitter. Those numbers are the common trend. I'm willing to dismiss last year as an outlier if you are.

And if Spiller doesn't have those high carry counts due to Jackson's meddling, then it's hard to place him at the top of the fantasy charts among the Marshawn Lynch-esque "20 carries a game guaranteed" guys. Of our top 13 running backs, exactly two have less than 250 projected carries. New England's Stevan Ridley is at 245 projected carries. Spiller is at 200 on the nose.

So let's play a fun statistical game. Say C.J. Spiller manages 5.0 yards per carry but only rushes 200 times because he splits time with Fred Jackson. Alfred Morris, meanwhile, gets 4.0 yards per carry but reaches his projected 265 carry mark. That's 1060 yards for Morris but 1000 yards for Spiller, even though Spiller is clearly the more efficient runner in this hypothetical scenario. And in reality, we project Morris to actually be closer to the 5.0 ypc mark himself, blowing Spiller's rushing total out of the water. Math is fun, guys!

So What Can We Expect?

Let me get this straight. Spiller's high efficiency from last year is statistically unlikely to happen again. And even if it does happen, his potential low carry count could still preclude him from being one of the top backs all around. Why exactly are people looking at him as a mid-first round selection again?

I'm not quite sure myself. Possibly the passing-catching possibilities? But even a few extra Kevin Kolb throws his way can't make up for the down rushing numbers numberFire has projected for him this season.

PlayerCarriesRush YdsRush TDsRec.Rec YdsRec TDsFP
C.J. Spiller200.41986.645.9245.14404.242.18184.29

But Zach, I'm fully expecting you to say, he has so much upside potential! You're not wrong; that's why he's categorized as a medium risk and holds a larger range of potential outcomes as compared to "safer" backs. Even with that wider range of outcomes, though, his chances for hitting some important milestones aren't great.

  • Odds 1000 Yards Rushing: 46.3%
  • Odds 400 Yards Receiving: 51.9%
  • Odds 200 FP (Standard League): 27.9%

That last projection is dangerous. We project eight other backs to hit 200 fantasy points this season: Peterson, Foster, McCoy, Martin, Rice, Lynch, Richardson, and Charles. Alfred Morris also falls only 0.78 projected FP shy. We're not only saying that Spiller's not in that class, we're saying there's over a 70 percent chance he doesn't reach 200 FP in a standard league. Those are some high odds.

Spiller's worth the risk as a high second round pick; he could reap some big rewards. If you're feeling risky, maybe you pair him with safe bets like Aaron Rodgers or Calvin Johnson on back-to-back picks in a snake draft. But before that, I'll pass please. There is just too much uncertainty with C.J. Spiller to make him worthwhile.