BBD Assistant Editor: Joe Marino
For most teams, assembling a solid one-two punch of running backs with complementary skill sets is a key factor to offensive success. The Buffalo Bills have done even better, as they have built a four-deep stable of backs that is arguably the deepest and most talented in all of the NFL. The combination of C.J. Spiller, Fred Jackson, Bryce Brown and Anthony Dixon gives the Bills four ballcarriers that are capable of being feature backs or at the very least, solid complimentary backs for most NFL teams.
What are the Bills supposed to do with all of this talent at running back this season and beyond? Here’s what we do know: The Bills want to run the football and when you think they are done running the football, they want to run it some more. Last season, the Bills led the entire league with 546 rushing attempts, 37 more than the next closest team. With an influx of running back talent and power-blocking offensive lineman, it certainly appears the plan is to run the ball as much if not more this season.
C.J. Spiller: How Does He Factor In Buffalo’s Plans?
Spiller, the team’s most physically gifted runner, has had an up-and-down career but his game-breaking ability makes it a priority for the Bills to ensure he gets plenty of touches every Sunday. Spiller performing to his capabilities is vital to the team’s success but also has major implications on his future, considering this is a contract year for him.
Spiller entered the NFL as a college senior from Clemson and will be 28 years old at the start of the 2015 season. Quickly approaching 30, what type of contract demands will Spiller have? Those demands will likely be the deciding factor on whether or not the Bills opt to retain Spiller long term beyond this season.
Spiller is the only back in Buffalo’s quartet that isn’t under contract after the conclusion of this season. Having already signed Fred Jackson to an extension and added Brown and Dixon this offseason, the Bills may already have their plan in place for life after Spiller.
So far, the Bills have shot down all notions that Spiller could be on the trade block. General manager Doug Whaley said Wednesday that the Bills “have not been contacted by any team about C.J. Spiller,” according to Tim Graham of The Buffalo News.
The Bills should not simply let Spiller walk at season’s end and sign with another franchise. Perhaps their best option is to let the first four or five games of the season play out and then reevaluate the situation. If the Bills are off to a slow start and a contender is in need of a running back because their top back goes down due to injury, trading Spiller at that time would make more sense than it does now. The Bills should not trade Spiller until that scenario presents itself. Parting with the offense’s top playmaker is not the message the Bills want to send to their team and fanbase before the season starts. With the pending ownership change, there is too much on the line for the Bills’ players, coaching staff and front office to make a move like that.
The Other Running Backs
Jackson is the NFL’s oldest active running back at 33 years old. As ageless as he seems, his impressive and improbable tenure in the NFL is coming to an end. Relying too heavily on Jackson would be foolish, and that is one of the primary reasons Jackson’s contract next season is not guaranteed.
That is where Brown comes in.
The Bills are no strangers to trades involving running backs, but they have usually been the ones parting with the running back to acquire draft picks. In 2005, the Bills traded Travis Henry to the Tennessee Titans for a third-round pick. They parted with Willis McGahee in 2006 for two third-round picks and a seventh-round pick from the Baltimore Ravens. Most recently, in 2010, they exchanged Marshawn Lynch with the Seattle Seahawks for a fourth-round pick.
During this year’s draft, the Bills gave up a conditional 2015 fourth-round draft choice for Bryce Brown. Through two preseason games, Brown has been the Bills’ most productive and impressive back. Averaging 5.8 yards per carry while working with the second- and third-team offenses, Brown should be in line for more opportunities with the starters.
The Bills did not give up a fourth-round pick (that potentially could become a 2016 third-round pick) for Brown to be buried on the depth chart as a third or fourth running back. Brown, who I profiled earlier this summer in my “Scouting the Bills Veteran Additions” series, has a rare blend of size, speed and power and has flashed major potential in the opportunities he has been given. He may very well be the team’s future at the position.
Dixon, who rushed for 3,994 yards with 42 career touchdowns during his collegiate career at Mississippi State, should not be forgotten. After four years of limited opportunities with the 49ers behind Frank Gore, Dixon signed a three-year contract this offseason to be a member of the Bills. He and Brown could end up being the Bills’ top two running backs in 2015.
The Bills face crucial management of their running back personnel this season and beyond, but they have no shortage of options. With a deep and talented backfield, the Bills are primed to have another successful season running the ball. That gives the Bills a chance to be a much improved football team in 2014 if quarterback EJ Manuel continues to progress and the defense continues to be stout.