The Case for C.J. Spiller in New Orleans
When I first heard that C.J. Spiller was going to sign with the Saints, I couldn’t hide my disappointment…
To clarify, when free agency began I was hoping that he’d land in a lead back role, and saw his arrival in New Orleans as a setback for the fantasy stock of Mark Ingram, who recently re-upped with the Saints for four years. It was a double-whammy.
But once the team traded away two key cogs in the passing game – Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills – in addition to cutting Pierre Thomas and letting Travaris Cadet walk, it has become apparent the Saints intend to use Spiller heavily, especially in the passing game.
This was reinforced by head coach Sean Payton’s recent comments about the Spiller signing:
“His cutup is unbelievable,” Payton said of breaking down Spiller’s film with the Buffalo Bills. “And I’m not talking about last season because I think it became challenging, but 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.
“He’s physical. He’s the most explosive player on the field a lot of times when you’re watching him. And you know, he’s someone who’s been in the AFC, he’s not someone we see a lot of on film. So he’s an exciting player that clearly heading into free agency there wasn’t any thought about, and then after that first rush there was some interest. And I think to his agent’s credit, they looked at it from a ‘how he was going to be used’ standpoint, the system, the offense and wanting to be a part of it. And we feel the same way.”
When asked to compare Spiller with former third-down back Darren Sproles, Payton had this to say:
“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,” Payton said. “And you see a [passing game] route tree from Darren that’s pretty encompassing, and then from CJ you see X-number of routes [in how he was used in Buffalo]. So I’m anxious to see some of the things he can do in the passing game.
“I think [Spiller] is a little bit bigger. But they are both playmakers that are explosive, so there will be a lot of similarities that way.”
When asked about Spiller's role, Payton said this:
"Spiller's (skillset) is a unique one. I think one of things that helped us sign C.J. was the versatility that we look to have when he's in the game. We'll look at packages to put him out wide, packages where he's in the backfield with another running back. The key with him when you watch him on tape is finding a way to get him the ball in space because he's so explosive."
Here’s a list of all of the Saints who were targeted over the last two seasons:
A few things to note:
- Running backs accounted for 26% of the targets (or roughly 168 per season) over the last two years. The Bills averaged 130 targets per season to their running backs, but Fred Jackson got the vast majority (59.6%) of those.
- Nine of the 12 most targeted player-seasons (e.g. 2013 Jimmy Graham) are no longer with the team. Sproles and Moore left last offseason, and Graham, Stills, Thomas and Cadet were moved/let go this spring. Opportunity is plentiful.
- The Saints running backs averaged 7.5 yards per catch, while Spiller has a career 7.6 YPC average.
But Spiller Hasn’t Been Any Good!
The Bills didn’t use Spiller effectively over the past few seasons. I don’t know how many times I've checked Twitter on Sundays and see Bills fans (or Spiller owners) complaining about the Doug Marrone regime running him repeatedly between the tackles and/or refusing to get him the ball in space.
He had his best year (1,703 total yards, eight total touchdowns and 43-459-2 in the passing game) in 2012 under then-coach Chan Gailey. That’s probably the season Payton is referring to when he was describing Spiller’s “unbelievable” and “explosive” film. He averaged 15.6 touches (12.9 carries, 2.7 catches) that year and averaged 10.7 yards per catch.
Spiller has caught 158 of 204 targets (77.5%) in his career. The catch rates of the three most-targeted running backs in 2014 – Matt Forte (78.5%), LeVeon Bell (79.0%) and Fred Jackson (73.3%) – we’re comparable, and one could argue that Spiller’s rate should rise given the upgrade in quarterback he’s about to experience.
But He’s Injury-Prone!
This is a reasonable concern. Spiller has been nicked up throughout his career and missed seven games in 2014 with a broken collarbone, and injury that is unlikely to reoccur. (Anyone who owned Ryan Mathews in recent years might disagree.) The fact remains that Spiller played in 61 of his first 64 games.
Okay, But How Many Touches Will He Get?
The Saints only ran the ball an average of 24.9 times per game over the last two seasons, and even though that’s expected to increase as the team moves to a more run-oriented offense, it’s hard to see Spiller getting half of those carries (despite his career 5.0 YPC). Thomas averaged 9.2 carries in 2013, but had just 4.1 totes per game last season.
Ingram really came on as a runner over the last two years, and Robinson is capable as well, so while I’m expecting Spiller to get more carries than Sproles (3.6 carries per game over his final two seasons with the Saints), he’s unlikely to approach the 147 carries that Thomas saw two seasons ago.
Let’s say Spillers sees 5-6 carries per game. Assuming 4.5 YPC, we have 22-27 rushing yards right there.
Now, for the catches… Third-year tight end Josh Hill figures to get a good amount of Graham’s targets, as Payton apparently “loves” him. Rookie wideout Brandin Cooks averaged 6.9 T/G while healthy, and should see at least that much work with Graham and Stills no longer on the roster. But that doesn’t change the fact that the vast majority of the team’s targets are up for grabs and the Saints have a long history of using their running backs heavily in the passing game. Robinson is almost non-existent as a receiver, and while Ingram isn’t terrible in that area, Spiller is clearly the best option to fill the Sproles/Thomas role.
Thomas saw 5.1 targets per game in his last two seasons, and that includes the 2013 season in which he was targeted 84 times and wasn’t even the most targeted running back on the team. Sproles was targeted 89 times that year. Sproles/Thomas combined for 9.5 catches per game in 2013. Thomas averaged 4.1 receptions last year, and Cadet averaged 3.2 catches in the five games that Thomas missed. (In fact, when you sub in Cadet for Thomas in the five games that Thomas missed, the two backs combined for 153.4 FP in PPR formats, which would have been good enough for a #23 finish in 2014.)
Bottom line: If Spiller plays a full season, he should see at least 80 targets as the team’s primary passing back.
Where Will He Finish?
In PPR formats, Sproles finished #5 in 2011, #13 in 2012 and #23 in 2013. Thomas finished #21, #32 and #16, respectively, and a Thomas/Cadet combo would have finished #23 in 2014. This gives us an idea of where the Saints’ passing down backs typically finish. And keep in mind that Sproles and Thomas played together for a good chunk of time. Now they’re both gone.
The table below shows the range of potential fantasy production based on Spiller’s projected carries and catches. To estimate yardage, I used his career yards per catch (7.6) and 4.5 yards per carry, which is somewhat conservative since his career average is 5.0 YPC. To estimate touchdowns, I used his career TD per catch (3.8%) and per carry (1.8%). (For reference, Thomas averaged 3.7% and 3.4%, respectively, so these are conservative estimates as well.)
|48||RB26 (RB39)||RB23 (RB37)||RB20 (RB34)||RB20 (RB34)||RB19 (RB32)|
|64||RB23 (RB34)||RB21 (RB34)||RB20 (RB32)||RB19 (RB30)||RB14 (RB28)|
|80||RB21 (RB32)||RB20 (RB30)||RB19 (RB28)||RB14 (RB27)||RB13 (RB22)|
|96||RB20 (RB29)||RB19 (RB27)||RB15 (RB22)||RB13 (RB21)||RB11 (RB21)|
|112||RB19 (RB23)||RB15 (RB21)||RB13 (RB21)||RB11 (RB19)||RB10 (RB19)|
His potential PPR finish is listed first, while his potential finish in standard formats is listed in parenthesis. These ranks are based on how his projected fantasy points would have finished last season.
If we estimate an average of 4.0 carries (64 for the season) and 4.1 catches (65 total), both reasonably conservative estimates, then Spiller would finish around RB21. Since signing with the Saints, Spiller’s ADP has been in the late 5th round, which equates to RB27 or thereabouts.
If he holds up physically, I think it’s more likely he finishes with around 80 carries and 70-75 catches, which would put him in the RB14-RB19 range, making him a great value in the 5th round. He could serve as a high-upside RB2 for owners who draft one back early and then load up on pass-catchers, or he could be the RB1 on a team that targets stud receivers or tight ends in the first few rounds. His workload is bound to increase if Ingram misses any time, but I'd expect Robinson to see most of Ingram's between-the-tackles carries in that scenario.