Should You Buy C.J. Spiller?

C.J. Spiller is off to a slow start. Is it time to try to snag him off another owner before his cost goes up?

Lost in the “David Wilson has been more disappointing than The Hangover: Part II” madness is the fact that first-round running back C.J. Spiller has been less than mediocre in 2013. After three games (two and a half if you don’t want to count his absence from the second half against the Jets), Spiller has rushed for 153 yards on 43 carries. Perspective: Bilal Powell rushed for just four fewer yards than that against Spiller’s team on Sunday.

The explosive Bills runner hasn’t even come close to living up to his first-round average draft position. Just a season ago, C.J. posted Adrian Peterson-like numbers, capturing a 6.0 yards per carry average en route to 1,703 rushing and receiving yards and eight total scores. Among all 200-plus attempt runners since 2000, Spiller’s 2012 campaign was 14th-best in terms of rushing net expected points per attempt. In other words, Spiller was contributing more for the Bills in 2012 with each touch than all but 13 backs over the last 13 seasons.

Though we’ve only got a small sample this year, Spiller’s average yards per carry has dropped by an Isaac Redman (6.0 to 3.6), and he’s become one of the least effective backs in the league. The slow start begs us to question: Is this the Spiller norm, or is time to buy low on the Bills back?

Regression Was Obvious

Remember the “don’t draft Adrian Peterson first overall because he’s not going to get 2,000 yards again” people? Well, I’m sure many of those folks thought Spiller was a worthwhile early first-round selection, not counting the fact that his 6.0 yards per carry average was going to be nearly impossible to repeat.

In NFL history, only seven running backs have ever carried the ball 200 or more times and averaged six yards per tote in a single season. Three of these instances have come recently, as Jamaal Charles accomplished the feat in 2010 and Adrian Peterson and C.J. Spiller each did it in 2012.

But of all the running back seasons with 200 or more rushing attempts – 846 of them – only seven finished with such an average. Though Spiller is a special back, the average tells us that he had less than a one percent chance of repeating such efficiency this year.

Now, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t going to be the same type of fantasy runner in 2013. Spiller finished as the seventh-best fake football runner in 2012, and with the potential for more volume under new head coach Doug Marrone, Spiller’s averages could have dropped by nearly a yard and he’d still be a great option in your RB1 lineup slot.

However, after two full games and one where he injured his thigh, Spiller’s near 50/50 split with teammate Fred Jackson has his rush attempt totals entering 2012 territory. That’s not good news for a player who was bound to have a yards per carry average decline.

Is the Lack of Production Because of Unfriendly Matchups?

The good news for Spiller owners? He hasn’t faced the softest defenses in the world. Through the first three weeks of the season, the Bills have gone up against the Patriots, Panthers and Jets front seven. The Panthers have already held Marshawn Lynch to a modest 43 yards on 17 attempts, and shut down the Giants offense completely (for what that’s worth). The Pats just held Doug Martin to 88 yards on 20 attempts, and stopped Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory for 100 yards on 25 touches. And the Jets, well, they’ve been one of the best teams at stopping the run, allowing fewer than 200 yards to opposing backs over their first three games. In fact, entering Week 3, the Jets ranked third within our defensive adjusted rushing net expected points metric, stopping the run better than all but two teams on a per play basis.

Needless to say, regardless of his usage, Spiller’s yet to see a matchup that screams big game potential.

But looking forward, Spiller and the Bills don’t necessarily have phenomenal matchups upcoming. He’ll see all non-Steeler AFC North teams over the next three weeks, and then the 3-0 Dolphins. I’d be surprised if he didn’t have at least one of his big games in there, but the upcoming schedule doesn’t look to be like an absolute cake walk, thanks to an NFL filled with parity.

In essence, Spiller’s potential won’t be based on schedule. Though he’s played good defenses over the first three weeks of the season, there’s not one team that really stands out over the upcoming weeks as the one Spiller will go off on.

Fred Jackson’s Impact

As I noted last week, Fred Jackson has had the best success rate among relevant NFL runners this year. When a player contributes positively towards his net expected point value, that play is considered a success. Entering Week 3, 60 percent of F-Jax’s rushes were successful runs, better than Eagles running back LeSean McCoy.

The 32-year-old wonder continues to raise eyebrows. After his injury-ridden 2012 where his yards per carry dropped significantly, Jackson is looking like the effective running back we’ve all seen in the past. From C.J. Spiller’s standpoint, that’s not a good thing; there could be fewer touches in store.

But he’s 32, and this short-term success is almost bound to slow down. At his current pace, Fred Jackson is looking to carry the ball 170 times in 2013. Only 36 running backs in NFL history have gotten that much volume at that age, and 35 of those backs averaged fewer than 5 yards per carry. Currently, Jackson has a 5.3 yards per carry average.

The wear and tear will force the Bills to give Spiller more touches, driving down Jackson’s value and bringing C.J. to more fantasy relevance. I expect Jackson to have a decent season after his hot start, but if we go by history, there’s little chance that this type of split (43 to 36 attempts) between the backs can continue – the Bills have to eventually feed Spiller the ball more than they have been.

What’s Next for Spiller?

Interestingly enough (well, not really if you’ve seen the numberFire algorithms at work), numberFire had Spiller at a controversial number 12 ranking entering the 2013 season. This was due to the clear regression he was bound to hit, as well as a healthy Fred Jackson.

However, a 12th-ranked preseason back clearly is a highly-touted one. For Spiller owners, patience will be key. Though the matchups don’t look incredible, C.J. will have to be fed the rock as an aging Jackson reverts to a more realistic yards per carry average. There’s no reason to expect Spiller to reach his 6.0 average from a season ago, but the higher volume will help him become worthwhile in fantasy once again.

If you own Spiller, hold tight. Perhaps you had higher hopes that won’t be met, but he should still finish the season as a solid RB2 with RB1 upside. He’s just performed poorly during the judgmental portion of the fantasy season.