Thursday, March 18, 2010

What Dreams May Come 2010 - CJ Spiller

I tried not to start 2010’s “What Dreams May Come” series with CJ Spiller. Really, I tried. It’s much sexier to write about the obscure player whose gifts, once brought into the NFL game, will come through more clearly than they ever did in college. Chris Johnson’s speed, Aaron Curry’s tackling, these are the sort of singular talents that can only be appreciated when seen in the context of the highest level of competition in the sport, giving impressive substance to what in college is just ethereal style. The problem is that, with CJ Spiller, this appreciation for otherworldly singularities might just be going mainstream. Curry’s selection at the fourth pick was something of a “total package” pick, one based in a stunning physicality rather than in what actually made Curry special on the field (not that they are entirely separate, but it goes to the distinction between potential and performance). Chris Johnson was, at the time of his draft, considered a huge reach by the Titans. CJ Spiller, on the other hand, is almost certainly going in the first round, and it isn’t because he has a prototypical build for his position or because some team will take a “crazy” chance on him; it is because he is the standard bearer for the league’s embracing flashes of brilliance as endpoints in and of themselves instead of just markers of a player’s journey to becoming “complete”. The way has been paved by his peers, and Spiller will be the first test case of whether this change in focus can have the results we’ve always believed it should.

If that sounds esoteric, it’s only because CJ Spiller represents something that this blog has particularly hoped for since its inception. By anybody’s objective standard, however, CJ Spiller is a phenomenal talent. Last season, taking the lion’s share of the work for the Clemson offense, Spiller gained 1212 yards on 216 carries (5.6 average) and 12 TD. He also caught 36 passes for 503 yards and 4 TD. He also handled kickoff and punt duties to the point where teams simple avoided giving him the opportunity to hurt them as often as they could. He showed an ability to take a game over on his own ability, with 7 games of over 100 yards of total offense. Furthermore, he could take games over in a variety of ways. Yes, he was graceful in his crushing of Florida State (165 yards and 1 TD rushing, 67 yards and 1 TD receiving), but perhaps his most impressive effort came in a loss (they always seem to around here…) to Georgia Tech, in which Spiller singlehandedly kept Clemson within a score of defeating a talent laden team thanks to his 233 yards and 4 TD on the ground. Spiller’s quickness translates into any offensive capacity, and time after time, he proved that he could use it to punish teams in whatever way they would allow him to do so.

Spiller’s drawback in any other year would be his size, standing just 5’11” and 195 pounds. Thankfully, this is where the shift in focus comes in. In part because of the incredible workouts given by stars in recent years and in part because of the incredible workouts given by busts in years past, teams seem to be focusing more on how a player’s gifts can be built around in an offense, instead of seeing them as signs that a player can be made “whole” and THEN use his incredible gifts within a rigid scheme. It’s the reason we now have running back platoons; the “complete” player is now seen as the unicorn it always was. It is in this league that Spiller can shine on an offense. Percy Harvin found success in his first year as a part of the Vikings offense, all because Brad Childress recognized that he had the opportunity to tailor his system to have a new aspect of versatility that it hadn’t had before and that opponents had not yet seen. Spiller has every gift that Harvin has and more. Spiller ran the 40 in 4.37 seconds, has a 36 inch vertical leap, changes direction as quickly as any back available, and has hands that make him a threat on passing downs. He won’t have to take every carry or block on every down because teams don’t expect players to do that anymore; they expect them to be sufficient enough with their weaknesses so that they don’t create huge problems when they are on the field, and simply use someone else when those weaknesses would come into most sharp relief. In short, the league has evolved into a place that tailors to an offensive player’s unique gifts so that they can be used most effectively, and there is no offensive player in this draft with gifts like CJ Spiller.

Watch Spiller’s highlights and tell me you don’t think that speed and quickness will translate into an NFL passing game, where he’ll be matched up against slower linebackers or safeties that are out of position for his ability to change direction. He could just as easily be a threat on the ground, taking surprise handoffs to go outside of the tackles or hit an apparent hole in the line to get to the second level, where his top gear gives any play the potential for disaster. With defenses still figuring out ways to account for a wave of NFL offenses relying on two backs, and therefore on fresher, quicker legs, Spiller could be the ultimate tool in exploiting the fatigue levels that come from defenders reacting to backs moving consistently more quickly than they’ve moved in years past. Spiller would then be the result of the positional shift that we’ve seen in how teams balance systems and individuals. Years after the Reggie Bush “failure”, teams have learned to build around what they have instead of expecting “incomplete” players to succeed in ways they never could at the expense of their natural abilities. The fear of the singular talent is, it would seem, finally dead. Good thing, too, because a league in which a firework like Spiller gets to have his game focus on the explosions rather than making them a quirky sideshow, and it is the reason why CJ Spiller is rightfully the most important offensive player in the 2010 draft.

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