What to make of the Bills' backfield?
The glut of talent in the backfield in Buffalo is perhaps justified by the growing premium placed on depth at the position around the league, as front offices seem to have realized with the attrition at the position that significant depth is needed to take on a full season. That might explain why a team with a series of concerns across its roster -- including apparently glaring holes at left tackle and quarterback -- invested heavily in Clemson's Spiller when it boasts legit incumbents in Jackson and Lynch.
The elemental issue here is whether a running-back-by-committee exists in Buffalo or just a tiered backfield with superior depth. While some may assume the former, many indicators point to the latter, especially given new coach Chan Gailey's pronounced tendencies as an offensive architect.
Both ESPN.com's AFC East blogger Tim Graham and our own Matthew Berry have recently discussed Gailey's long-standing penchant for leaning on a lone "feature" back to drive his running game and not a consortium of backs. Graham illustrates this point in his post, "With such talent in the backfield, folks have wondered how new head coach Chan Gailey will delegate the touches those who assume Gailey will spread around carries with a semblance of equity shouldn't be so sure. In fact, if Gailey doesn't designate a workhorse and ride him hard, it would be the first time he declines to do so since his rookie season as an offensive coordinator in 1988."
When I queried Graham, a writer who had covered the Buffalo market for nearly a decade, whether Spiller or Jackson was more likely to be the lead back this season in Gailey's offense, he conceded that it's "hard to say because of injuries. I have no idea how Gailey's leaning."
Considering that we're just a week out from the regular season, we can't wait for Gailey to "lean" one way or the other, so we'll simply have to interpret this scenario with the information we do have.
Breaking down the backfield
Lynch: After starting his career with two solid campaigns, Lynch's stock in Buffalo took a "McGaheean" dive thanks to a series of arrests and issues with the law. Trade rumors swirled around Lynch this offseason, but he seems likely to remain in western New York. Leaving the off-field realities off the field, just what kind of player is Lynch presently? Last season, Lynch averaged just 3.8 yards per carry (to Jackson's 4.5) on 120 carries and didn't fare much better in the passing game, hauling in a respectable 28 receptions but at a clip of just 6.4 yards per catch. Scouts Inc. nailed it on the head in its concise scouting report on Lynch: "He is a talented player who needs to become a better worker off the field." With the team committed long term to Spiller, it's not likely that he'll get the feature role again in Buffalo outside of an injury-induced promotion. It's of note that Lynch is recovering from an offseason ankle injury.
Jackson: The versatile Jackson beat the odds as a former Coe College Kohawk, Sioux City Bandit and a member of the extinct Rhein Fire, in order, to become not just an NFL player, but also a starter and somewhat of a burgeoning star. When Lynch's issues resulted in a three-game suspension to start the '09 season, Jackson took the opportunity and literally ran with it, as his 2,516 combined yards (including 1,083 in return yards) rank as the fourth-most in NFL history. The drawback in Jackson's production from a fantasy perspective last season was the utter lack of scoring, as he reached the end zone just four times during the course of the season. Nonetheless, Jackson proved that he's more than a worthy backup and indeed is a valid starting option in the appropriate scheme. The obvious issue heading into this season for Jackson isn't competition for snaps but rather the broken hand he suffered in a preseason contest Aug. 13 against Washington. Gailey recently said that, thanks to his injury, Jackson would likely be "limited early in the year."
Spiller: Spiller is in many senses similar to fellow rookie Jahvid Best in that both are exceptionally fast former track standouts and collegiate superstars who have battled the perception that they're too small to endure a feature role in the NFL. A distinction between the two electrifying freshmen is that Spiller doesn't share the same extensive injury history that Best bears, which in some pundits' opinions explains the gap we saw between them in the NFL draft. Spiller is a renowned playmaker who has performed at a high level in recent preseason games, compiling 157 total yards on 29 touches and three touchdowns. As it stands, Spiller is expected to be the team's starting tailback when the season begins next week.
We're projecting a combined 542 total touches from the three backs, with Spiller netting 247, or around a 45 percent of the offense. We have Jackson in line to get 30 percent of the work, while Lynch is predicted to take on roughly 25 percent of the load. The main issue with these projections is that they break with the 21 years that Gailey has directed offenses and afforded a single back a distinct majority of the work. Can we assume that this is the season that Gailey employs a more shared backfield versus a tiered one when he's been reticent to do so during the past two decades, particularly when one of the talents in question is the top draft pick of Gailey's new gig in Buffalo?
ESPN fantasy editor Nate Ravitz is among those in the Spiller camp. He says, "I believe that the conventional wisdom that the combination of Buffalo's bad team and the presence of Jackson and Lynch makes him a risky pick is wrong." ESPN's Adam Schefter declared in his Wednesday blog that "the Bills have a lot riding on Spiller and are going to do whatever they can to make him look good -- and he's good enough to make them look very good. There will be roles for Jackson and Lynch but it will not surprise me if Spiller has a bigger role than people think."
Berry is in the Jackson camp: "Gailey's M.O. has been that one guy carries the majority of the load. Spiller is not built to be that kind of guy. Spiller will see a good many balls. Both are talented, but Jackson will represent the far better fantasy value this year."
My take is that on account of the injury to Jackson, Spiller is going to be afforded a rare opportunity, much like Jackson was given last season, to embed himself in the offense from the start. His greatest issue might just be how he endures so much work, rather than how much work he'll be afforded. That said, no one questions the Titans' Chris Johnson's ability to withstand a significant workload, and he's just a scant few pounds bigger than Spiller. It appears that in a fantasy context Lynch serves merely as a depth play, ideally in deeper leagues. Jackson retains considerable fantasy value, thanks to his adaptable skill set and deflated draft price, but a repeat of last season's workload is becoming unrealistic outside of an injury to Spiller.
Given all the information we have regarding Gailey's tendencies and the current context of the backfield, it appears that Spiller boasts the greatest fantasy upside.