Should You Draft C.J. Spiller?
The only disappointing part of writing here at the Viz is that I’ve yet draw the ire of the (un)official ombudsman, one Mr. Matthew Freedman. Maybe he thinks all of my content is stellar, I don’t know. But I won’t think like I’ve officially made it here until the day I finally earn his scrutiny.
I mention that because in his recent article covering sleeper running backs for the upcoming season using his workhorse metric, Freedman drops the line “And don’t even talk to me about newly acquired Saints RB C.J. Spiller.” I’m not attempting to dissent the Costanzan because his point was in reference to becoming a workhorse back and I’m not quite exactly headed there, but I do in fact want to talk about C.J. Spiller and his new home in New Orleans.
First, let’s get this out of the way. I’ve always hated Spiller in fantasy. I’ve always considered him overvalued and he doesn’t score touchdowns. Owning him has been nothing short of heartache and sorrow for any season that required significant draft capital. Through five seasons and a plethora of injuries, his PPR finishes have been RB60, RB28, RB6, RB27 and RB68. That RB6 season came when he carried an ADP five rounds later than Fred Jackson, the dinosaur teammate of his who has consistently whipped his ass in fantasy production. Pulling up Spiller’s Career Graph is just as disheartening as you’d expect.
Spiller will also turn 28 years old this August, putting him on the wrong side of the apex age for running back production.
There have been 278 top-24 PPR seasons from backs 28 or older since the 1970 merger, or about six per season on average. Of that group, 55 percent (154) were backs that reached 35 receptions or more in a season with an average season of 39.6 receptions. Like Spiller found out in Buffalo, receiving backs fend off the age declination cliff better than their jack-hammering peers.
I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone, but receiving opportunity is exactly what Spiller is walking into with his new team. Over the 11 seasons Sean Payton has been an offensive coordinator or head coach, he’s always utilized his backfield in the passing game more than anyone else.
I also included 2012 when Payton was suspended by the league because the system didn’t really change all that much. Over these 12 seasons, his backfields have averaged 147 targets per season and 179 per year since 2010. He’s produced 14 top-24 scoring PPR backs over those seasons. If you want the full individual breakdown, here you go.
Spiller has been a good pass catcher in his career and also had 123 receptions in college. He’s only had 10 percent or more of his teams targets in one season as well, something we can almost assuredly count on happening in New Orleans. If he can reach double digit in team target share, his floor is going to be 40 receptions. As crazy as it may sound, the Saints actually may throw to their backs more than ever in 2015. Let’s add up the following:
- They traded their best target and touchdown producer Jimmy Graham.
- Early reports are they will be replacing said TD machine with a committee.
- They traded efficiency standout Kenny Stills.
- Their team leader in career receptions is 32 years old and has had three consecutive declining seasons.
- Their projected WR1 for the season is a sophomore receiver who missed six games as a rookie.
- Their quarterback’s percentage of deep passing attempts has declined three consecutive seasons.
- In all likelihood, we won’t be expecting them to be good enough to really alter their run/pass play calling splits.
The Saints backfield could definitely flirt with 30 percent of the team targets in 2015. I do believe Brandin Cooks is the biggest beneficiary of the Saints’ fire sale so far this offseason. The problem there is that everyone also believes this and it’s going to cost you to acquire him in drafts. I’m not claiming that this is the right approach to take, but I’ve always been a curmudgeon when it comes to very early draft picks. I want players with a resume I can lean or at least have shown they are worth the type of investment I’m making that early. While I like Cooks and his new opportunity, I can’t foresee myself investing in him too often this summer.
I really don’t believe Spiller affects Mark Ingram at all since he brings no rushing touchdown potential to the table (Spiller has just seven career carries inside the 5-yard line). But I do think he’s a better running back than has ever filled this role (Reggie Bush didn’t excel rushing until his departure, which could also be a bullet to this statement on Spiller) and his rushing output is a wildcard. Ingram’s health has been a question mark as well, and although I don’t think Spiller has any shot of being a workhorse, I do believe he’s a good enough running back to potentially thwart Khiry Robinson from becoming the workhorse if Ingram misses time.
The last piece of that puzzle is the Saints really might not care all that much about Robinson. They’ve seen him now for two seasons and even though he posted a nice 47/245/1 line rushing in the three games Ingram missed last season (RB44, RB22, RB15), the first week in which Ingram returned Robinson then received three carries to Pierre Thomas’ six and Ingram’s 10. He was injured the following week and by the time he was healthy, Ingram was too hot to turn away from. He’s also entering the final season of his own contract, something the Saints knew and they still went out and made re-signing Ingram a top priority by giving him four more years and then also signing Spiller to a four year contract. In all likelihood Robinson is just cheap depth to the Saints.
The RB Sim App hates Spiller for 2015, but is also agnostic to his new surroundings. To create a few varying outcomes for his season, I instead turned to the Projection Machine. I created four sets of outcomes for Spiller, with the last being the rainbow-chasing variety in which Ingram goes down and Robinson is nothing more than a plunger and rotation back. For the offensive settings, I’ve set the Saints’ average point margin at -2.5 (I don’t believe they will be a good team in 2015), their pass tendency at +0.03 and their plays per game expectancy at +2.5. Those are what I deem fair and here’s how those baselines (the dash lines) set up against what they’ve done recently.
With that in place, here’s where I set Spiller’s usage at in each scenario and where he’d project to finish as a PPR back.
It has to be acknowledged that Spiller has a 60-plus reception season in his obtainable range of outcomes. Of the 164 backs to reach that mark over the past 45 seasons, the lowest any of them have finished in PPR scoring is RB34, while 163 finished as RB28 or higher. Of course there’s no guarantee he reaches his top-end projection, but even his median projection paints him as weekly RB3 than can flirt with RB2 production. I don’t want to fully to declare Spiller as an arbitrage on Cooks, but I also do believe there’s a non-zero chance he could lead the team in receptions.
I’m fully aware he’s burned owners in the past and that his legs may be made out of unbaked pie crust, but all of those factors will keep his ADP closer to his median projection, leaving his upside there for the taking. We can use the Best Ball ADP app as a proxy for what his re-draft value may be, which may be slightly inflated given the format. If Spiller ends up costing you a fifth rounder, that’s too rich. But if he is hanging around in the late sixth, early seventh round and beyond, I’m going to be willing to taste the forbidden fruit one last time.