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Camp Countdown: Will C.J. Spiller return to Pro Bowl form?

Posted Jul 16, 2014

An ankle injury compromised C.J. Spiller’s greatest assets in 2013. Now fully healthy, can Buffalo’s dynamic ball carrier recapture his Pro Bowl form?

Every summer leading up to training camp buffalobills.com examines 25 of the more pertinent issues facing the team as they make their final preparations for the upcoming regular season. This year we wanted to focus on a few different areas that impact the team off the field in addition to what takes place on the field. From now until report day at training camp we’ll address these subjects one at a time. Here now is the latest daily installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 18 and the Sept. 7 opener at Chicago.

Two seasons ago C.J. Spiller became one of just three running backs in the league to average six yards a carry or more since 2000, joining Jamaal Charles (6.38 - 2010) and Adrian Peterson (6.0 – 2012) who did it in the same season. The 2013 campaign for Spiller however, was derailed by a high ankle sprain sustained in Week 4 that was never right for the remainder of the year.

The ankle injury compromised Spiller’s greatest assets as a running back. Now fully healthy again, can Buffalo’s dynamic ball carrier recapture his Pro Bowl form?

Health

When Spiller returned to One Bills Drive in the spring for OTA practices it didn’t take long to see his trademark burst and elusiveness when carrying the ball through a hole or in open space. Blessed with tremendous physical gifts it’s evident that when healthy he’s among the most talented backs in the NFL.

“That’s what I’m capable of doing,” said Spiller after one of his stronger spring practice sessions. “When I’m fully healthy I consider myself one of the best in the league, but when you’re not healthy it kind of hinders your game a lot. It hinders our game plan.”

Buffalo’s offensive game plan, particularly on the ground, was curtailed by Spiller and Fred Jackson’s injuries last year. The variety of run plays was reduced, and with the passing game struggling through a rotation of quarterbacks due to more injuries defenses stacked the box early and often.

Being healthy sounds like a simple plan, but staying healthy is very difficult at a punishing position like running back where you’re hit almost every time you touch the ball.

“The biggest thing for me is to be healthy – for all of our running backs to be healthy so we can expand our game plan. I just have to keep doing what I need to do to stay healthy this whole season and try to go out there and make plays.”

Multiple use

In Spiller’s most productive NFL season he was utilized in a multitude of ways by the former coaching staff. He lined up as a tailback, a true receiver out wide and as a slot receiver. Though he averaged less than 16 touches a game in 2012 he averaged more than 106 yards of total offense every Sunday.

After spending a year with Spiller as the team’s offensive coordinator, Nathaniel Hackett sounds as though he intends to again diversify the ways in which Spiller is used on offense.

“C.J. is a great guy and he’s an electric player,” said Hackett. “Getting to know C.J. and seeing how he works that’s definitely going to help us as we move forward.”

What helps provide Hackett with the license to line Spiller up in a number of different places on offense is the depth the team now has at running back with Fred Jackson, Anthony Dixon and Bryce Brown also on the roster.

“This is probably the deepest it’s been since I’ve been here,” said Spiller of the running back contingent. “We’ve got a great group of guys. The thing about our group, we always want each other to get better. I’m excited about the guys we have here.”

With other capable backs to make use of in the offensive backfield, Spiller can be lined up in space more often where he can be at his most dangerous as not just a big play threat, but a scoring threat.

“When you have the depth at that position you can do that,” said Hackett. “When you’re healthy and you have depth at that position you have the ability to do a lot of different things with running backs especially with someone as dynamic as C.J.”

More threats

In addition to the depth at running back there are more receiving threats outside. The addition of Sammy Watkins, Mike Williams and an ‘up to speed’ Tony Moeaki provides the Bills offense with respected weapons in the passing game. If any one of them begins producing at a high level sooner rather than later this fall, it should loosen up the run fronts of opposing defenses.

“If those guys go out and make plays then teams won’t be able to stack eight in the box,” said Spiller. “But until these guys go out and prove themselves week in and week out, only then will it loosen up the box. For the most part, teams are going to continue to stack that run front. We were the number two rushing team in the league, they’d be foolish not to stack it.”

That is until Watkins and Williams along with a burner like Marquise Goodwin is beating them over the top.

Contract year

Spiller is a principled man. He’s not as motivated by the big contract as many other players in the league. Like any other competitor however, he would like to be compensated fairly for his efforts on behalf of the team. A highly productive 2014 season would improve that compensation on a potential long term extension with the Bills.

The Bills former first-round pick has expressed a desire to remain in Buffalo long term. His efforts to regain his top flight form this offseason is only the latest example.

“C.J.’s done a great job coming back from that and working extra hard,” said Hackett. “Just his finish. Even when he takes a check down, how he bursts. Every single thing he’s doing is just with more and more intensity. He wants to get back to where he was. I think with him being healthy and him being more familiar with the system, what we’re asking him to do, he’s going to be more and more comfortable.”

“For us to be second in the league in rushing with a new system and us trying to get comfortable with what was going on – now we have that year up under us and you can see the difference,” said Spiller. “Everybody is confident in what we’re doing and hopefully that will bring better things.”

And there’s no doubt a healthy Spiller is a key piece to that equation.