C.J. Spiller has kept an eye on the Saints for a long time.
Few coaches know how to use a running back with pass-catching ability better than Sean Payton, and when Spiller had a chance, he’d sit down, watch New Orleans and marvel at the ways Payton found to get the ball to Reggie Bush, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas.
Now, three practices into his Saints career, the one premier playmaker New Orleans added in an offseason of offensive departure is starting to appreciate the full magnitude of the opportunities available in Payton’s offense.
“It was always intriguing, watching from afar, but now, being in the thick of things, I see why those guys were very successful,” Spiller said.
Spiller, who took the lead in Thursday’s practice with Mark Ingram held out due to a minor injury, dropped one pass, but he also offered a glimpse of what he can add to the Saints’ offense. On one play, Spiller caught a short throw in the flat, turned upfield and accelerated down the left sideline, turning a short gain into a first down before the defense could get in reasonable position to make a tackle.
New Orleans didn’t always have that option in 2014.
As good as Pierre Thomas was as a pass-catching option out of the backfield, he lacked the extra gear that players like Bush and Sproles added. Spiller, on the other hand, has it in spades — he ran the 100-meter dash in 10.3 seconds at Clemson and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.37 seconds at the NFL Combine in 2010. Only three days of organized team activities are in the books, but the veteran running back has already turned heads on the defensive side of the ball.
“The first thing you see with C.J. Spiller is speed. He can take it the distance,” defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. “He’s not just a little guy, he’s got some size, but he runs like a little guy.”
When he’s healthy, though, Spiller can be more than just a third-down option.
At 5-foot-11, 200 pounds, Spiller has a strong build, and he’s already proven he can be a devastating weapon when he gets enough touches. In 2012 and 2013, Spiller averaged 1,088.5 rushing yards per season and 204.5 carries, the only two times he’s broken the 200-carry mark in his five-year career in the NFL. Obviously, the Saints have other good options in Ingram and Khiry Robinson, but Spiller has shown an ability to carry the load.
“He’s got some of the quickness and the speed and kind of that slash element like a Sproles but he’s bigger in stature like a Pierre, and so there’s really not anything he can’t do,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “He can be a feature back in the base offense, certainly he can play in the nickel, he’s a guy you can free release, a guy who can block, a guy who can run screens, a guy who can do a little bit of everything. You like those guys.”
Spiller, for his part, prides himself on being an all-around back.
He knows he’s fast. What he wants to prove is that there’s more to his game.
“I’ve been very blessed and fortunate enough to have tremendous speed, and I take great pride in that, but I’m more than that,” Spiller said. “I think I’ve got some power, I take pride in my catching abilities, my blocking ability, so I just try to make my game a complete game.”
New Orleans will likely give Spiller more opportunities in the passing game than he ever got in Buffalo. In five seasons with the Bills, a team that hasn’t had an elite quarterback or a great passing game, Spiller’s best mark for receptions was just 43.
Bush caught more than that number three times in five seasons in New Orleans. Thomas turned in three seasons with 45 catches or more.
And Sproles, a borderline uncoverable option for Brees out of the backfield, never caught fewer than 70 passes in a season.
“I think there’s a real good fit for him with what we’re going to do offensively,” Payton said. “We’ll put him in a role where, whether he’s in the backfield (or) flexed out, the key, I think, for him is when we study him is finding him ways to get him the ball in space and let him utilize his skill-set and speed.”
The only question left is how many chances Spiller will have to showcase his full range of skills.
Three days into OTAs, New Orleans is only in the beginning stages of figuring it out themselves.
“We’re trying to find out who’s the best situationally, as far as what we’ve installed in the offense so far,” Thomas said. “When we get deeper into the OTAs, we’ll be able to answer that question a little better.”