(Note: For all our draft coverage, including posts on Jermaine Gresham, Sergio Kindle, Jimmy Clausen, and Tim Tebow, go to the Draft category on the blog and click around.)
Of all the ballyhooed prospects in this year’s NFL draft, the guy I’ve seen most with my two eyes is Clemson RB C.J. Spiller. Since my wife is a Clemson graduate and I’m a Wake Forest alum, we usually attend the Clemson/Wake game. And in that contest this season, Spiller went off, running for 106 yards and two touchdowns on just 9 carries, including an eye-popping 66-yard touchdown. Spiller had a touchdown of 50 yards or longer 21 times, and tallied one in every game but two this season. He won ACC player of the year honors and was told his number would be retired before he played in the ACC championship game.
All of those accomplishments are terrific, but how killer is Spiller when it comes to the pros? He’s by far the best running back in the draft class, and he’s probably the best big-play threat available at any offensive position. But Spiller may not be big enough at 5-foot-11, 195 pounds to be a 25-carry-a-game back, and that kind of load would probably inhibit his big-play potential.
While Spiller isn’t an Adrian Peterson-style every-down back, it would be foolish to think about what he can’t do. That’s because Spiller can do an awful lot for an NFL team. When you think about what Reggie Bush has become for the Saints, you get a picture of the kind of role Spiller would thrive in. He’s a fantastic kickoff returner (seven career touchdowns, including four as a senior), and although he hasn’t had as many chances returning punts, he has shown terrific flashes there as well. He’s great in the screen game, although he’s not quite the fluid receiver that Bush is. Still, Spiller can make you pay in that area. And for a breakaway back, Spiller is also plenty tough running between the tackles. In a running back tandem, Spiller can immediately be a force, and that force will make a huge difference for whatever team drafts him. Plus, he’s a phenomenal guy loved and respected by teammates and coaches alike.
But the reason Spiller has shot up draft boards is the 2009 success of Chris Johnson. who was a game-changer for Tennessee with a 2,000-yard season. Like Johnson, Spiller has explosiveness, and even though he’s not big, he’s not afraid to run inside. So our read is that scouts look at Spiller and see a Johnson clone, only without the dreads. In a copycat league, Spiller hits the draft market at exactly the right time to maximize his stock.
Spiller would fit with Seattle, which drafts sixth and 14th in the first round, but he would look even better playing for a contender like San Francisco (13 and 17) or Houston (20). While that may work best for Spiller, the rumblings that attach Spiller to the Giants at 15 or even the Jaguars at 10 show that he’s more likely to go off the board early than late. And no matter where he lands, Spiller will create a role by being there for a team. He’s that good.