The days of the workhorse running back in the NFL are evaporating in favor of what every fantasy football owner dreads, the running back by-committee for multiple teams. The Buffalo Bills will be no different, with Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller both in line for significant roles in 2012.
Many fantasy owners may find themselves choosing which Bills’ running back to target on draft day, and weighing which guy provides the most value. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what each guy brings to the table and then I will make my choice.
Jackson was the NFL’s leading rusher in 2011 with 934 yards before his season ended in Week 11 due to a fractured right fibula. Add in his 442 receiving yards, on 39 catches, and he was clearly a top tier fantasy running back at that point even without a big touchdown total (six rushing touchdowns). He has been practicing without restriction since being medically cleared in February, and will re-claim his spot as Buffalo’s starting tailback as training camp starts. The team showed they have little concern over his continued health by signing him to a two-year contract extension during the offseason.
Jackson is 31 years old, but he has only played five NFL seasons and has a much lighter workload (817 carries) than most running backs his age. He is also clearly a prominent part of Buffalo’s passing offense, with at least 31 receptions in four straight seasons and at least 37 catches in three of those seasons, as his effectiveness as a pass blocker allows him to stay on the field. That said, Jackson has not been a prolific touchdown scorer during his career (16 rushing touchdowns, four receiving touchdowns) and barring a turnaround his fantasy value may be limited some in that regard.
Spiller was the Bills’ top draft pick in 2010 (ninth overall), and had just 74 carries as a rookie but did top 1,000 yards as a kickoff returner. He took advantage of Jackson’s injury last season, totaling 633 offensive yards (446 rushing yards) and five touchdowns (three rushing) while averaging 5.2 yards per carry over the final six games of 2011. The fact he had at least 100 total yards in three straight games from Week 15-Week 17 was well-timed, especially for fantasy owners who lost Jackson, and may have altered playoff results in a lot of leagues.
Spiller is not physically suited to being a workhorse or goalline back, but his versatility as a pass catcher (63 career receptions) should keep on the fields and he proved he can handle a bigger workload with his performance last season when Jackson was sidelined. Spiller could be deployed as a wide receiver in certain situations where both backs are on the field at the same time, as he was at time’s prior to Jackson’s injury last season.
As expected, Jackson is above Spiller in any preseason running back rankings you will look at and justifiably so as long as he is fully recovered from his broken leg. A virtually equal split in terms of total touches looks possible here and Bills head coach Chan Gailey has suggested that to this point, making this an incredibly frustrating situation for fantasy football owners that starts on draft day and is certain to extend into the season barring an injury to either back.
Both backs have appeal in all league formats and could even be regarded higher than similarly ranked players in PPR formats due to each guy’s involvement and production as pass catchers. All things considered Jackson should be drafted first as a RB1 in all leagues with more value than other top 10-15 running backs in PPR leagues. Spiller should be considered a RB3 in all formats, with slightly more appeal in PPR leagues and in those leagues that reward return yardage as long as he retains that role.
All things considered, including the price that can be expected on draft day, I lean toward Spiller here. He has just as much, if not greater, upside than Jackson and assuming a fairly equal total number of touches could do more with them. However, it is possible Jackson will be overlooked in a lot of drafts due to his absence late in 2011 and that could present some potential value for fantasy owners that pounce on that opportunity.