Doug Whaley will be preoccupied with the NFL draft for another week.
Once the selection process is over, though, much of the Buffalo Bills’ general manager’s work in building the 2014 roster will be complete.
Whaley’s attention will then turn to the issues looming on the horizon. Chief among those is the long-term future at running back, where both C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson are headed into the final year of their contracts.
“We’ll start looking at issues such as … C.J.,” Whaley said last week. “We’ll start doing a pecking order of what we want to do.”
The Bills have performed their due diligence in looking at running backs during the pre-draft process, hosting six prospects at One Bills Drive.
“There’s a delicate balance there,” Whaley said. “You want to get somebody who can come in and contribute right away, but you also have one eye open for the future. It’s nothing that’s going to weigh on us heavily and say ‘we have to do this because of the future.’ But you’re definitely cognizant of what’s going on after this year.”
Spiller’s long-term status with the team is complicated by a number of different factors. He’s entering his fifth professional season and will be 27 during the year.
ESPN conducted a study earlier this offseason and found that since 2001, running backs who have played at least four NFL seasons with an average of 75 carries per season peak at 27. By the time they turn 30, their rushing total drops by nearly 40 percent.
Not surprisingly, Spiller brushed aside the findings.
“That’s just somebody that came up with a study,” he said. “That’s good on their part. I don’t think my play is going to decline. I mean, if you really go look at my body of work, I don’t really have a ton of carries.”
Spiller has 729 career touches from the line of scrimmage (590 carries) in his first four seasons. By comparison, the next running back selected in 2011, San Diego’s Ryan Matthews, has 986 offensive touches.
Of course, Matthews has battled the “injury prone” tag in his career, which puts Spiller’s career usage in perspective. While he’s missed only three games in his NFL career, Spiller has dealt with several nagging injuries – including a high-ankle sprain in 2013 that robbed him of much of his trademark elusiveness.
Still, he finished with a team-high 933 rushing yards on 202 carries, despite playing only about 33 percent of the team’s offensive snaps.
“I was very pleased considering that I was playing on one wheel, really. Almost went for another 1,000-yard season. That was one of my big goals, trying to get back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, but just came up short,” he said. “To be able to do it on one wheel, you know, that’s pretty impressive, but I wasn’t satisfied.”
Spiller, who uses real or perceived slights as well as any member of the Bills, said the frustration of an injury-plagued season is behind him, “but I won’t forget what everybody was writing in the papers.
“I’ve kind of got that fire burning inside to really get back out there on the field and really start playing again,” he said. “I’m going to be ready to go this year. Hopefully I can get back to that 2012 form.”
Spiller’s 2012 season featured 1,703 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns – both career highs. When the two sides sit down to negotiate, it’s likely Spiller’s camp will point to that season as a sign of what type of production he can bring to an offense.
Another complicating factor, though, is that Spiller doesn’t have a “camp” yet.
The agent who negotiated Spiller’s rookie deal, Gary Wichard, died in 2011.
“I have not hired anyone yet. Hopefully I’ll get one pretty soon – I’m going to need one pretty soon. I’ve kind of got some guys in mind that I’m looking at,” Spiller said. “I just haven’t really had enough time to sit down and see who the best agent would be for me. … My previous guy, I had a unique bond with him, so that’s kind of what I’m looking for. It takes awhile to try to get a feel for guys.”
Spiller said he plans to reach out to former teammate Jairus Byrd to discuss how to handle impending free agency. Byrd, of course, played 2013 on the franchise tag, choosing to sit out voluntary workouts and most of training camp.
“The biggest thing is, I’m here,” Spiller said, contrasting his situation with Byrd’s. “He didn’t show up – and it worked out in his favor. But I’m here, ready to work.”
Spiller said he wouldn’t consider attending voluntary workouts a sign of good faith.
“I love being around my teammates. I love working out. Is that going to boost anything? Who knows? I can only control what I do,” he said. “I can’t worry about anything else. I understand that this is a business and decisions have to be made. You have to respect that. Being here has nothing to do when we start talking.”
Spiller is scheduled to count $5.9 million against the 2014 salary cap, the sixth-highest figure on the team.
Lucrative free-agent contracts for running backs have been nonexistent this offseason. Chris Johnson’s recent deal with the New York Jets that pays him $4 million annually is the richest contract signed. According to ESPN’s John Clayton, only 11 running backs in the league make more than $5 million annually.
“I don’t know if teams just want to decide to make this a passing league – which I mean, it already is – but to me, you’re always going to need a running back,” Spiller said. “A quarterback’s best friend is the running game. That’s what we’ve had here in Buffalo: a great running game since I’ve been here, but for some reason, people start looking at that stat sheet and looking at the age and different stuff, instead of looking at production. To me, you’ve got to have a running back. You’ve got to have more than one.”
That’s a luxury the Bills have had since Spiller came to the team. Jackson took over as the team’s workhorse back in 2013, rushing for 890 yards on 203 carries, finishing with nine touchdowns.
He is also scheduled to be a free agent after 2014, but considering he’ll be 34 before the start of the 2015 season, his earning power on the open market figures to be significantly less than that of Spiller.
Either way, the Bills appear to be bracing for the eventual departure of one or both of their running backs by their interest in the 2014 draft class.
Spiller wouldn’t put a timetable on when negotiations on a possible contract extension might start but admitted the idea of sticking with one team as a pro is appealing.
“It’s not too many guys who can say they’ve played their career in one spot,” he said. “But at the same time, you’ve got to be a realist with yourself and understand that it’s a business as well. But my goal, I would love to stay here and finish my career.”