Spann was out of the league in 2012, but spent time with three teams during 2011 and saw action in preseason and in the postseason. After the jump, I'll be looking back at the footage from the 2011 season to see what he's capable of and assess his chances of competing for a roster spot.
Who is Chad Spann?
The 24-year old Spann is listed as 5-8 and 202 pounds and went to college at Northern Illinois. There he moved into a starting role in his junior season and ended his college career with back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons. In 2010 he was named the MAC Offensive Player of the Year after leading the entire nation with 22 touchdowns and he ended his college career with 49 touchdowns and a 5.4 yards per carry average.
Spann ran a 4.52 forty, a 4.32 short shuttle and a 7.18 long shuttle at his pro day (which the Jets attended) and had a 32.5 inch vertical and a 120-inch broad jump. He also lifted the bar 18 times. Despite this, he went undrafted in 2011 and was picked up by the Colts, who he played for in preseason. He didn't manage to make it onto the final roster, as he was released with an injury settlement, but he got picked up by the Rams that October and went on their practice squad. He didn't manage to get any regular season action, but was then signed to the Steelers offense in the days leading up to their playoff game against Tim Tebow's Denver Broncos. With Rashard Mendenhall out for the season and Mewelde Moore dealing with injuries too, Spann was prepared for a possible third down back role, but in the end wasn't needed and featured solely on special teams.
Entering 2012, Spann was working on his receiving and route running skills with a view to a possible permanent switch to wide receiver. However, he had to deal with a second torn hamstring and after the Steelers released him in May, he was unable to get healthy enough for another shot at getting back into the league. However, he went back to NIU's pro day in March and impressed enough to earn an invite to the Jets rookie mini-camp on a tryout basis. Obviously he didn't manage to win a contract there and then, but did enough that they had him in mind when a roster spot became available.
Let's look back at his performances in the 2011 preseason with the Colts.
Week One - Rams
Having impressed at camp, Spann entered this game as the Colts' number one kick returner and was also in the mix at running back, getting some rotation reps as early as the first quarter. His first kickoff return went well, as he avoided contact in the open field to run the kick back 28 yards to the 23-yard line. However, the next one didn't go so well as he let a bobbling squib kick roll through his hands and past him into the end zone. Having retrieved it, he actually did pretty well to get back to the 14. The third kickoff was a touchback, but the fourth one was another disaster. This time it went through his hands in the end zone and he booted it forwards. He was fortunately able to scoop it up cleanly on the move, but went down at the 10-yard line. His final kickoff return wasn't much better, as he caught the ball deep in the end zone and ran straight into the first man, who he bounced off, but was soon tackled at the 14 without being able to pick up any extra yardage. Overall, his four kickoff returns accounted for 67 yards and two recovered muffs. He was replaced at half time and wouldn't get another shot at the role.
At running back, his first carry didn't go so well either, as he was swarmed under for a two yard loss. You couldn't put this on him though, as a couple of players missed their blocks and he had nowhere to go. On another first quarter rep, he chipped a pass rusher effectively on a quick pass.
In the second quarter, he got another series at running back on a drive that ended with a 44-yard touchdown pass from Dan Orlovsky to Taj Smith on a blown coverage. Spann ran for eight on an outside stretch run (the kind Mornhinweg is expected to use a lot this year), heading to the outside, before cutting upfield between the right guard and right tackle who were on the move to the right. The next play was an ever better read, as he picked up four and the first down on 2nd and two. He took the hand-off going right, but then cut back all the way to the left and dived for extra yardage upfield. He then set up the touchdown with a 25-yard reception. Orlovsky faked the hand-off to him and he actually stumbled on his way out to the flat, but recovered his balance just in time to make a clean hands catch on the move, turning it upfield and using him speed to dodge a diving tackle at the second level. He got nailed by the safety 25 yards later.
Spann got one more series at running back in the fourth quarter, where he carried once for no gain. On the play, he read that there was nowhere to go and tried to cut back, but slipped as he did so.
Week Two - Washington
Spann wasn't used as a return man this week, but did get involved on special teams. He made a good tackle on a punt return after having lined up as the punt protector. Nobody blocked him, so he just ran down the middle of the field, but he did a good job of breaking down the return man in the open field to hold him to a five yard runback. On a negative note, he was penalized for an illegal block in the back on the punt return team after missing his block on the edge and getting beaten downfield. He hustled well to get back into the play, but shoved the tackler in the back just as the return man caught the ball and they collided, with the tackler's helmet knocked flying and a minor head injury arising.
On offense, he just got one series at the end of the game over the last 3:11. He carried once, making a decent cut up the middle for six. On another play, he stayed in to block and the announcer praised how well he picked up the blitz, although the replay did show that the pass rusher had driven him off his base and he was actually pushed into the quarterback just after the throw was made. However, he did well to stay in front long enough to allow him to get the throw off, especially since there was another player that came up the middle unblocked to hit him cleanly at the same time.
Week Three - Green Bay
Relegated to a special teams role in this one, as the starters were given additional reps, Spann did not make any kind of an impact.
Week Four - Cincinnati
Having fallen behind in the battle for roster spots, Spann saw action on just three series in this one, although he was in the game contributing as the Colts drove for the winning touchdown late. On his first series, halfway through the third, he carried the ball once, turning the corner on the outside and slipping a tackle downfield for nine yards. That play was negated by off-setting penalties (including bizarrely - and presumably erroneously - a holding call charged to himself).
On the next series, in the fourth, they faked the hand-off to him and he tried to chip a pass rusher, but didn't get him cleanly, leading to a pressure. He rushed for seven on his first carry, picking his way through traffic and avoiding contact in the hole. His next carry went for no gain, as there was nowhere to go on a stretch run outside, so he just fell back into the pile at the line of scrimmage.
On the final (game winning) drive, they were mostly passing the ball. On one play, he threw an effective cut block on a blitzer although the QB hesitated and was pressured anyway. I wouldn't credit that to Spann. On another play, he stayed in to pick up the blitz and two guys came up the middle. He dealt with the situation well, backing off to force one of them wide and then picking up the other one, allowing the throw to be made. He set up the winning score with a 10-yard run on a draw play, as he burst up the middle and twisted down to the seven gaining a couple of extra yards.
While there isn't much to go on, I was impressed with Spann's elusiveness in the open field. That seems to be something the Jets see as a priority in their backs this season, so he might be able to turn some heads. He wasn't much of a pass catcher statistically in college (23 career catches with a best of 10 in one season), but looked pretty smooth catching the ball on that one big play. Having said that, his hands failed him on two of the kickoffs and he sometimes didn't look back for the ball early enough when running routes. If he's been working as a receiver though, his instincts and techniques should be much improved.
Spann didn't fare too badly as a blocker in limited exposure to the role and could make contributions on special teams. Although he did not perform well on kickoff returns with the Colts, he must have shown something for them to give him that opportunity in the first place and his open field elusiveness would seem to make him a good fit there. Surprisingly, in college, he did not return kicks (other than one punt), but did contribute on special teams (including one blocked punt).
While Spann, assuming he remains at running back, is likely a project or just injury cover with Chris Ivory dealing with a hamstring issue and Mike Goodson yet to report, it will still be interesting to see if he's made progress over the last two years and whether he still has much upside.
It does make you wonder when Goodson (who likely would have also been seeing time as a return man) is set to return. They will have to cut someone when he is activated and Spann will hope he can do enough not to be that guy when the time comes.