Let’s play our favorite game. No, not that, and put down the ketchup bottle.
It’s always incredibly easy and fun to play the draft second-guessing game. This is a game usually reserved for our March and April coverage, a time when our draft anticipation reaches a frenzied pace and we look back at previous missteps to find lessons that can be learned.
Admittedly, this is a game in which hindsight is more than just 20/20. It’s everything, and it’s easy to cast stones years later. However, there are times when a drafting mistake has become so glaring that our game of hindsight guessing is irresistible.
This is one of those times. So thanks, Buffalo.
In 2010 the Bills drafted running back C.J. Spiller with the ninth overall pick. There was nothing wrong with Spiller’s value at that spot — after 1,212 rushing yards to go along with 503 receiving yards and 16 total touchdowns during his senior season at Clemson, Spiller was regarded as easily one of the top RBs of the 2010 class along with Ryan Mathews.
What was puzzling from Buffalo’s perspective is that Spiller immediately entered a situation in which he’d be buried on the depth chart. That wouldn’t last long though, because Marshawn Lynch’s spiral in Buffalo following his 2008 Pro Bowl season ended with his departure for Seattle. But the small matter of Fred Jackson remained.
Jackson is still around, and he’s leading the NFL in rushing yards through two weeks this season. He’s long been one of the league’s most underrated running backs, and he has 1,156 rushing yards over his last 18 games, all while splitting time with Spiller. Meanwhile, the Bills have been left to get creative in their efforts to get the rock in Spiller’s hands after he’s received just nine carries to Jackson’s 35 this year.
This begs an intriguing question for a team and a town bubbling with excitement after a 2-0 start: What if the Bills did something a little more logical with that ninth overall pick in 2010, and addressed a truly glaring need?
After their selection of Spiller the Bills were widely criticized for not plugging a gap on their offensive line, a unit that had allowed 46 sacks in 2009. Now it seems that need may have been slightly overstated, as after the introduction of 2009 picks Andy Levitre and Eric Wood in 2010, the Bills surrendered a more average 34 sacks.
But defensively the sack totals haven’t been nearly as promising, a need the Bills began to address last April by drafting Marcell Dareus third overall after ranking 27th in sacks last year. Lurking only a few picks behind Spiller in 2010 were Jason Pierre-Paul and Derrick Morgan, two young pass rushers now beginning to be unleashed in New York and Tennessee respectively, and they already have a combined 3.5 sacks this year.
It’s easy to understand Buffalo’s motivation for drafting Spiller. He’s explosive, versatile, and athletic, and Jackson is at the running back death age of 30. But that cliff may not be nearly as steep for Jackson because he’s never been a true No. 1 back, and he’s only now starting to receive a heavy workload during his fifth season.
Jackson’s highest single-season carry total is 237. With that minimal pounding he could still be productive for a few years, and he’s following a career path similar to that of Chiefs running back Thomas Jones, who was also locked into time shares until finally getting a chance to be the featured back with the Bears in 2005 during his fifth season. Jones had his best year at the age of 31 when he ran for 1,402 yards, and he has 3,653 rushing yards since he waved goodbye to his roaring twenties.
What’s especially encouraging for Jackson’s potential career arch–and disappointing for Spiller’s, at least in Buffalo–is his total carries compared to Jones. Jackson currently has 682 career carries, and Jones had 1,659 when he turned 30.
Jackson will be 32 when his current contract expires, a contract that he’d like to re-negotiate, although that process is quickly getting frustrating. If he can continue his Jones imitation and remain steady for two more seasons Spiller will be 26 years old. He’ll already be inching closer to that same RB cliff, and may not get through the NFL grinder with the same health that’s allowed Jackson to thrive at his advanced age.
Suddenly drafting youth to replace age in 2010 will seem pretty silly, and so will drafting based on desire instead of need.