If you want an idea of how important running the ball was to the Bills last season, take note: They're the only team in the NFL that had two running backs top 200 carries and 230 total touches each. Nothing's promised in terms of workload this year but you can be sure that Doug Marrone & Co. aren't thinking about veering from a run-dominant team to a pass-happy offense, particularly considering the still-inexperienced state of their passing attack.
Which brings us to C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson , a pair of polarizing Fantasy running backs. Spiller might have the most potential of any running back in the NFL, but he disappointed last season as he tried to play through injuries and not really flash his trademark explosiveness. Jackson, meanwhile, was outstanding in 2013 when he played through injuries and racked up a ridiculous 10 total touchdowns. But he officially has 1,688 carries and 256 catches over his career including his time playing indoor football and is 33 years old. Red flags galore.
If you go back and watch the Bills games, you can tell they love to run but aren't inclined to put Spiller out there for 20 carries per game from week to week. That goes double after injuries impacted his play. It probably means that so long as Jackson is healthy and effective, he'll cut into Spiller's work including the two-minute offense and the goal line. As we project the Bills running backs for 2014, we're going with those estimations.
Spiller has missed just three games in four seasons, so it's not like he's injury prone to the point where he has to sit out. Even on the conservative side I'd count on him for 14 games. Jackson's missed big chunks of time in the two seasons prior to last -- enough evidence combined with his age and history of work to suggest he plays fewer games this season? Fairly or not, I'm projecting him to miss three weeks -- not the six he had in 2011 or 2012, but not the 16 games he played last season.
If we agree that Spiller was "at his healthiest" for 2013 in Weeks 1 through 4 and 13 through 17, then we get an idea of how much the coaches leaned on him: 16.0 carries and 2.3 catches per in those games. In those same games Jackson averaged 12.7 carries and 3.0 grabs per game. I might keep these averages steady for 2014, maybe taking away a bit from both of them since the Bills might be inclined to (or have to) throw a little bit more. Peel off 0.5 carries per game off of Spiller and a full carry per game off Jackson, making Spiller a 217-carry, 32-catch running back and Jackson a 152-carry, 39-catch player.
Spiller's rushing average last year, injuries and all, was 4.6 per. To me, that's impressive considering it takes into account his whole season and the eight games with under 4.0 yards per game he had. Oddly enough his rushing average actually dipped by a tenth of a yard in those nine games we recognized him as being "at his healthiest" while his receiving average was on par at 5.6 per. Are we assuming a perfectly healthy Spiller for 2014? Probably not, but he still should be afforded a strong rushing average given his skills and ability to do so when hurt. I like that 4.6 rushing average with a very slight increase in receiving -- call it 5.8. That's 998 rush yards and 185 receiving yards for Spiller. Nearly 1,200 yards, likely delivered inconsistently from week to week.
Can we trust the elder Jackson to maintain the 4.3 rush average or 8.2 receiving average he had last season? Before you answer "no way," check this out: When he shared with a healthy-ish Spiller in those nine games, he actually averaged 4.9 yards per carry and 9.0 yards per catch. So we could assume that a lighter workload helped Jackson. We're already accounting for less work this year as the team keeps his wear-and-tear in mind. Might he be better than the year-end totals he had after all? The knee-jerk reaction is to crush his projected averages because he's old and has had a lot of work. But I think we might be surprised by this guy if we did that. I bet he can still hit 4.3 yards per carry with maybe 7.7 yards per catch. That's 654 rush yards and 300 receiving yards.
Where Jackson falters in yardage he can make up in touchdowns. As the Bills' main goal-line guy he'll be entitled to a number of scores that way. Seven of his nine touchdowns came from 5 yards or closer last season. Again, it's counter-intuitive to project a lot of touchdowns for a veteran but Jackson could give you six or seven touchdowns. I'd give him seven if I thought he'd play 16 games -- might even make it eight -- but since we're projecting him for 13 games I'm going for six.
I want to give Spiller a bunch of touchdowns but can't realistically expect him to do it. One major factor is because Jackson will swipe those goal-line touches from him. Of the 12 rushing touchdowns Spiller has in his career, two have come from inside the 5 and in both cases Jackson didn't play in the game. But what Spiller can do is break a run for a long score, though if you're counting on a lot of those you'll be sorry. I'm going with six rushing touchdowns and another one receiving for Spiller.
Figure a pair of fumbles for Spiller (he's done all right since his rookie year) and one for Jackson (who didn't lose a fumble last season but did lose four the previous year).
Final early projections: Spiller -- 217 carries, 998 yards, six touchdowns; 32 catches, 185 receiving yards, one more score, two fumbles. Jackson -- 152 carries, 654 rush yards, six touchdowns; 39 catches, 300 yards, one fumble.
How do my projections stack up with your expectations? Twitter: @daverichard. Email: on the left side of this page.