<
>

Saints RB C.J. Spiller making fast impression on new team

"There's really not anything he can't do," Saints QB Drew Brees said of new teammate C.J. Spiller. Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports

METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints' newest dynamic weapon, running back C.J. Spiller, busted free behind the defense around midfield during a practice last week. It wasn't the first time, and it won't be the last.

But this particular play stood out because Spiller seemed to almost be toying with the defense as he cruised toward the end zone. He appeared to be running only about three-quarters speed as a trio of defenders gave chase. But as he turned to look back at them, he sped up just enough to make sure they couldn't catch up.

"That wasn't top speed. But I was looking back at 'em, lettin' em know, 'You might want to stop running.' That was a TD," Spiller said with a grin. "But that was just a little glimpse of hopefully what's to come this season."

Fans will get their first glimpse of the 2015 Saints during today's veteran minicamp opener. And the bet here is that Spiller is the player who will turn the most heads.

The dynamic runner/receiver has flashed just about every time he's gotten his hands on the ball over the past three weeks of organized team activities. The 5-foot-11, 200-pounder especially stands out in these non-contact practices where players aren't in full pads yet.

"I know one thing, C.J. Spiller, the first thing you say is speed," Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said when asked for his first impressions from the other side of the ball. "He can take it the distance. He's an outstanding competitor and he's an exceptional guy. And he's not just a little guy; he's got good size to him. But he runs like he's a little tiny guy.

"He's special with his speed. ... He's got home run speed."

Spiller, 27, has made no secret of his enthusiasm for joining Saints coach Sean Payton’s offense -- which has a long track record of using multi-purpose backs like Reggie Bush, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas to exploit mismatches.

Spiller said earlier this offseason that a running back with his skill set would have been "a fool" not to take a visit to New Orleans in free agency.

Spiller, who spent his first five seasons with the Buffalo Bills, had his best season in a multi-purpose role in 2012 under former coach Chan Gailey. That year, Spiller ran for a career-high 1,244 yards and caught a career-high 43 passes for 459 yards, with eight total touchdowns.

However, Spiller's production diminished when he was used as more of a traditional between-the-tackles runner during the past two years under former coach Doug Marrone. Spiller also missed seven games with a broken collarbone last season.

In New Orleans, Spiller could catch even more passes, based on recent history. (Bush caught 88 passes in 2006, 73 in 2007; Sproles caught 86, 75 and 71 in his three years in New Orleans; Thomas caught 77 in 2013).

"I take great pride in catching the football," Spiller said. "We haven't really gotten into specifically how they want to use my skill set. But obviously everybody knows Coach Payton's track record. So you would think that my catches would probably be up from previous years.

"Whatever that number is, I'll be ready."

Payton said earlier this offseason that he actually planned to tweak the playbook to best feature Spiller's skill set, since Spiller wasn't even in the team's initial free-agency plans. The Saints pounced when it became apparent he'd be more affordable than expected, signing him to a four-year, $16 million contract.

"He's explosive. He knows what to do. I think there's a real good fit for him with what we're going to do offensively," Payton said. "Whether he's in the backfield (or) flexed out, the key I think for him is finding him ways to get him the ball in space and let him utilize his skill set and speed."

Spiller said he's still working on things like mastering the playbook and developing timing and rhythm with quarterback Drew Brees. He said he's trying to take down all the notes he can from Brees about how he wants certain routes run, etc. He's also been studying film of those past Saints runner/receiver threats.

Brees didn't seem to have any complaints, though, when he discussed Spiller early in OTAs.

"He's got some of the quickness and the speed and kind of that slash element like a Sproles, but he's bigger in stature like a Pierre. So there's really not anything he can't do," Brees said. "He can be a feature back in the base offense, certainly he can play in the nickel, he's a guy you can free release, a guy who can block, a guy who can run screens, a guy who can do a little bit of everything.

"You like those guys."