C.J. Spiller Should Be a Steal This Season in Fantasy Football PPR Leagues

Forced by Doug Marrone into a between-the-tackles role in Buffalo that poorly fit his talents, C.J. Spiller now finds himself sliding into the same role in New Orleans that once turned Darren Sproles into a household name in fantasy circles.

In 2012, under the play-calling of then head coach Chan Gailey, C.J. Spiller burst onto the scene averaging an amazing 6.0 yards per carry to go along with 10.7 yards per catch on his way to over 1,700 yards from scrimmage on just 250 total touches.

So as the 2013 season approached, with Bills fans and fantasy football managers alike salivating for more, new Bills offensive coordinator Nate Hackett promised to make Spiller the centerpiece of his offense, infamously proclaiming: "It's real simple: We're going to give him the ball until he throws up."

By seasons end, after failing to top 1,000 yards on the ground and with just a pair of touchdowns to Spiller's name, his fantasy football owners were the ones ready to lose their lunches.

And it's this sour taste that will make Spiller an absolute steal in PPR leagues this year.

That's because, while Doug Marrone and his coaching staff promised to give Spiller plenty of reps in the new Bills offense, Marrone and company had no real idea how to properly use Spiller on all those touches. And for some players it's the quality of touches they receive, rather than quantity that matters.

Now out of Buffalo, Spiller once again finds himself playing under a coach who understands how to best use the talents at his disposal. Regarded by many as an offensive genius, Sean Payton and his creative play-calling may be just what Spiller needs to recapture the fantasy football magic he flashed three seasons ago under Chan Gailey.

The Misuse of C.J. Spiller in Buffalo

Albert Einstein once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If that's the case, then what do you call it when you do a different thing over and over again and still expect the same success?

This is exactly the case for Doug Marrone the last two years in Buffalo.

Under Chan Gailey, Spiller proved himself to be a dynamo in the open field. Yet Marrone instead stubbornly insisted on fitting Spiller into a between-the-tackles role that poorly suited his build and skillset.

Spiller's yardage and touchdown totals not only declined under Doug Marrone's leadership -- going from 1,703 total yards in 2012, to 1,118 total yards in 2013, and ending with just 425 total yards in an injury-shortened, 9-game season in 2014 -- but his efficiency as measured by our Net Expected Points (or NEP) metric dropped significantly as well. For those unfamiliar with this advanced metric, NEP is a measure of a player's contributions to his team's chances of scoring above or below expectation, to read more about it check out our glossary.

In this regard, Spiller dropped from 47.80 total NEP in 2012 -- good for third amongst all running backs in this metric that season -- to an abysmal -10.20 and -10.40 Total NEP in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

While Spiller excelled when given the ball in space on plays like this and this, Marrone and his staff instead mysteriously decided to hammer Spiller right up the gut of opposing defenses. Beyond this, Spiller's involvement in the passing game declined under Marrone as well, going from 3.6 targets per game in 2012 to just 2.7 and 2.4 targets per game in 2013 and 2014. Often accused of trying to force a square peg into a round hole, it's no wonder that Spiller was a flop the past two years under Marrone's tutelage.

After deciding to join the New Orleans Saints as a free agent this offseason, there's a renewed sense of optimism surrounding Spiller's potential for the upcoming year, with the hope that his misuse the past two years will finally come to an end under Sean Payton's watch.

Calling Spiller the "most explosive player on the field" on film, Payton emphasized the need to find "ways to get him the ball in space and let him utilize his skillset and speed."

So the question on all our minds is, can Payton find a way to resurrect the promising career that Spiller displayed back in 2012?

A Perfect Fit in New Orleans

When you listen to Payton speak about C.J. Spiller, you get the strong sense that he knows exactly how to play to his new running back's strengths in order to maximize his potential.

“His cutup is unbelievable... you go back a couple of years and start looking at his screen reel, a sweep reel, a return reel. So when you watch his film you think of a lot of things he can do."

But what exactly can we expect from Payton in regards to Spiller's usage this upcoming season?

The Next Darren Sproles?
Following Spiller's signing in New Orleans, the logical conclusion was that he would be taking over the "Darren Sproles" role in the Saints' offense. Indeed, one look at their measurables suggests that Spiller not only has the athleticism to do the same things Sproles was asked to do on this team, but may actually be a bigger, faster, more-agile version of their former third-down back.

YearNameHghtWght40 ydBnchVertBroad3Cone
2005Sproles5' 6"1874.472333"105"6.96
2010Spiller5' 11"1964.271836"126"6.81

Standing five inches taller and nearly 10 pounds heavier than Sproles, Spiller also trumps the former Saints' standout in nearly every Combine event. Spiller beats Sproles' measurables in terms of speed (4.27 versus 4.47 40-yard time), and change-of-direction (6.81 versus 6.96 3-cone time), as well as in explosiveness (36-inch versus 33-inch vertical, and 126-inch versus 105-inch broad jump).

When comparing C.J. to Darren, Payton echoed the similarities between the two backs, stating, “I think that Darren’s got this unique quickness that, 10 steps can take place in a second. Spiller can hit the edge and all of sudden go 80... And you see a [passing game] route tree from Darren that’s pretty encompassing, and then from CJ you see X-number of routes."

All this provides a strong indication that Payton will be able to use Spiller in the role that Sproles flourished in to produce some of his best seasons as a pro.

And on this note, how did Payton use the quick, agile Sproles during his tenure with the team? As expected, a look at Sproles' numbers during his peak seasons with the Saints (2011 to 2012) reveals a workload and game plan that took ample advantage of Darren's strengths.

SeasonAttRush YdsRush TDsRecRec YdsRec TDsFPsFPs/Gm

A bit undersized for a running back, Payton minimized Sproles' role in the running game and instead focused on his strengths in catching the football. While Sproles averaged just 4.7 carries per game between the 2011 and 2012 seasons, he averaged a remarkable 5.5 receptions per contest over this same time span.

And in 2011, this strategy of getting Sproles the ball in space resulted in 1,313 total yards from scrimmage on just 173 total touches. Most impressively, this efficiency allowed Sproles to lead all running backs in total NEP that season as well, with his 78.95 dwarfing the 46.57 produced by second-place finisher LeSean McCoy.

Similar to Sproles, Spiller, too, has demonstrated soft hands in the passing game and a knack for reeling in passes from the backfield. Spiller's career 77.4% catch rate is nearly identical to Sproles' career rate of 76.3%.

Taken together, the similarities in athleticism and skillset between Spiller and Sproles suggests that C.J. may find himself being slotted into a very lucrative role in this Saints offense.

And the implications of all this for fantasy football is immense. The heavy use of Sproles in the passing game not only ensured that he received his touches in situations where he was most likely to succeed, it also created a stable floor in terms of his production in PPR leagues.

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When we break down his scoring between 2011-2012, 33.3% of his points in PPR leagues came from receptions (5.5 points per game). This consistent workload in the passing game ensured Sproles an impressively high floor, needing, on average, just another 45 total yards from scrimmage to reach double-digit production on any given week.

With a set of skills and abilities reminiscent of that of Darren Sproles that meshes perfectly with Payton's offensive philosophy, it wouldn't surprise me if this upcoming season Spiller started putting up the same -- if not better -- numbers that made Sproles a household name in 2011.

An Offensive Strategy On Target
While Sproles may have been Payton's most prolific pass-catcher out of the backfield thus far, his propensity to call passing plays for his running backs wasn't unique to Darren Sproles. The heavy use of running backs in the passing game, in general, has remained a hallmark of Payton's offenses.

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Since 2011 -- Sproles first with New Orleans -- the Saints' offense has averaged 165.8 targets per season (or a little over 10 per game), with the majority of these looks typically split between two running backs. And even after trading Sproles away to the Eagles last season, the Saints continued to feed their running backs through the air. In 2014, Drew Brees and the Saints dialed up 153 targets to their running backs, with Pierre Thomas and Travaris Cadet leading the way with 55 and 51, respectively.

So for those of you in PPR leagues looking for a team that will consistently involve their backs in the passing game, it doesn't get much better than the Saints.

And after allowing Pierre Thomas -- who averaged 61 targets per season between 2011-2014 -- to walk in free agency, and after trading away two of their top three target leaders from last season, Jimmy Graham (125) and Kenny Stills (83), Spiller finds himself with an ideal opportunity to carve out a significant role for himself in this passing offense.

Projections for Spiller in 2015

Many fantasy football managers will look at the Saints backfield situation this season, point to the presence of Mark Ingram and the recent failures of C.J. Spiller, and use these as reasons to stay away from Spiller in upcoming drafts. And Baton Rouge Advocate's Nick Underhill recently predicted that "Ingram could handle 185 carries to 140 for Spiller."

With a workload like that, it's hard not to blame owners from avoiding this situation altogether. But those in PPR leagues taking a more careful look at the situation might just find themselves in a position to profit from an arbitrage opportunity.

Last season in PPR leagues, the 15th best running back, Fred Jackson, averaged 13.5 fantasy points per game. If Spiller can match the 5.5 receptions per game Sproles averaged in his first two seasons with the Saints, then he only needs to average another 80 total yards per game to hit mid-RB2 value. And if we do the math, assuming Spiller maintains his career average of 7.6 yards per reception, this means he would only need to average another 40 yards per game on the ground to reach this total. Throw in an occasional touchdown once every two or three games, and suddenly you have a solid RB1 option on your hands.

Going in the early fifth round in standard 10-team PPR leagues with an overall ADP of 41, Spiller represents excellent value at the running back position. As we've just discussed, Spiller's predicted role in the Saints offense gives him the potential to be a high-floor, RB1 option at a fraction of the typical cost at this position.