Outlining Expectations For Isaiah Spiller’s Rookie Season

Steven Haglund
Isaiah Spiller reacts to his touchdown against Mississippi State.

Outlining Expectations For Isaiah Spiller’s Rookie Season

One of the biggest roster holes the Chargers had entering the 2022 offseason was at running back, not because they needed a starter. Obviously, that role belongs to Austin Ekeler – fresh off finishing 6th in the league in total yards from scrimmage and scoring a whopping 20 total touchdowns. No, the Chargers needed to get a reliable second running back to take pressure off of Ekeler – and Justin Herbert by extension. 

They ended up selecting Isaiah Spiller out of Texas A&M with the 18th pick in the fourth round with the hope that he becomes the player they need. Eight running backs went off the board before he did, but he might have landed in the best situation at least of the day two and day three picks. He’ll get to come in as a rookie and contribute right away without having to be THE guy like some of his peers. As an added bonus, he’ll get to run behind a very good Chargers offensive line that got significantly better up the middle by adding Zion Johnson in the first round and Jamaree Salyer in the sixth round. 

When evaluating expectations for a potential instant contributor I always like to look at three things: 1) his ability obviously, 2) his situation, and 3) what relevant history tells us. These are the things I’ll be looking at in order to see what we can expect from the former Aggie’s rookie season in Los Angeles.

The Ability Of Isaiah Spiller

In terms of Spiller’s ability, he’s exactly what the doctor ordered in terms of providing a well-rounded and reliable skill set. He has some athletic limitations but he’s got incredible vision, patience, and burst as a runner. So while he might not necessarily be capable of always hitting the home run, I think he will be a constant threat to get on base – which is exactly what the Chargers need as a complementary back to Ekeler, who can be a home run threat. 

Spiller is also a fantastic route runner and pass-catcher out of the backfield. The Chargers ask a lot of their receivers, after all, their passing concepts are heavily influenced by option routes. Spiller has a great feel for these situations coming out of the backfield and is very capable of making the first man miss in space to get some yards after the catch. He won’t be mistaken for Ekeler as a pass-catcher by any means, but he’ll be able to contribute right away in this regard as well.

The Situation For Isaiah Spiller

Even though I wasn’t super high on Spiller’s ceiling as a prospect, he checks a lot of those boxes and will be walking into a fantastic situation. After they drafted him, Tom Telesco said they weren’t just looking for a back to come in and ride Ekeler’s coattails. Instead, they were looking for someone who could legitimately stand on their own as a weapon. This is why they needed somebody who could impact the game as a runner and a pass-catcher. Drafting a stereotypical bruiser never made any sense for them, so while Spiller is a bigger back and can handle that role they needed a versatile prospect.

As much as we would all love to see Ekeler produce at the same level as he did last year, I can’t imagine he touches the ball 270 times again next season with Spiller in the fold. Non-Ekeler running backs touched the ball 165 times last season for the Chargers and even if they just reduced Ekeler’s workload to 250 touches that’s a big-time opportunity for Spiller to come in and make an immediate impact.

What Does History Tell Us?

The last question I wanted an answer to, in terms of setting expectations for Spiller, is what history tells us. More and more teams are using the running back by committee approach, and rightfully so with the amount of attrition that happens at the position on a yearly basis. With the recent trends, I really only wanted to look at the last five draft classes to find how productive the players selected between 2017 and 2021 were as rookies and see if I could find a comparable situation and player. 

In those five years, there has been 10 rookie running backs to rush for over 1,000 yards: Najee Harris, Elijah Mitchell, Jonathan Taylor, James Robinson, Josh Jacobs, Saquon Barkley, Sony Michel, Phillip Lindsay, Leonard Fournette. This kind of output for Spiller seems unlikely. All of these players led their teams in carries by a wide margin which won’t be the case for Spiller on the Chargers, barring an extensive injury for Ekeler.

I sorted the next tier of rookie running backs to 750+ yards rushing. Obviously, that would include the 10 players mentioned above and additionally Javonte Williams, J.K. Dobbins, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Cam Akers, Antonio Gibson, David Montgomery, Miles Sanders, Devin Singletary, Nick Chubb, and Alvin Kamara. This scenario might be a little bit of a stretch for Spiller, but it’s certainly a possible outcome, especially with the extra 17th game. 

The last bar I wanted to include here was over 600 yards rushing, which again includes all the players from above as well as Michael Carter, Rhamondre Stevenson, Chuba Hubbard, Gus Edwards, Kerryon Johnson, Joe Mixon, and Samaje Perine. I think this ultimately is the sweet spot in terms of expectations for Spiller’s rookie season.

To me, the best comparable role and output would be that of Johnson in Detroit. Johnson wasn’t the lead dog as a runner or pass catcher, taking back seats to LeGarrette Blount and Theo Riddick, respectively. He did, however, contribute in both regards as a complementary piece. Blount ended up with 154 carries to Johnson’s 118, and Riddick caught 61 passes to Johnson’s 32. The two veterans for the Lions totaled 215 touches on the season and the rookie totaled 150. I think the Chargers will ultimately give more volume to Ekeler and Spiller but I like that potential ratio for the two backs. If both players stay healthy, I could see a 250-185 kind of split ending up happening this season. This would allow both players to stay fresh, and maybe free Ekeler up for some more passing work from the slot. 

If we were to project 160 carries for Spiller as a rookie at four yards per attempt (right around the league average), that would result in 640 yards rushing. Add in a potential 25 catches at seven yards a pop (again league average for running backs), which would result in 175 yards receiving. If the Chargers got 815 total yards from scrimmage from their running back two in his rookie season, that would be a big-time upgrade for their backfield.

I think these are reasonable expectations based on Spiller’s ability, his projected role in a great offense, and similar comparisons from the last five years. As always though there’s no guarantee that Spiller hits the ground running like that, and it’s also possible that he exceeds the marks for the league average numbers on a per-play basis and therefore has a more successful season.

Isaiah Spiller reacts to his touchdown against Mississippi State.

Sam Craft – Associated Press