RB Jamaal Charles became the first Chief to crack into the top 20 of the NFL Network’s Top 100 players this year, and rightly so.
“To be a smaller back in this league, he is able to run between the tackles. A lot of guys aren’t willing to do it. He’s willing to do it,” said Browns LB D’Qwell Jackson in the NFL Network video.
Jackson should know. Charles blew past him in an 80-yard touchdown run behind RT Eric Winston on the first play from scrimmage when the two teams faced each other in 2012. The run ended up being the only offensive play of note in the game on the Kansas City side and one of the many amazing pieces of Charles’ 2012 highlight reel.
But, as we all know, Chiefs HC Andy Reid comes with a new system and one that is far less traditional than what Chiefs fans have seen in recent memory. It’s well known that Reid likes to get the ball to dynamic players in space and relies less on power up the middle. This of course begs two questions – Will Charles continue to run it up the gut like we’ve seen him do for years and should he even be doing so in the first place?
First, will he?
Yes, but not as much.
Eagles RB LeSean McCoy ran it up the middle on 31 (15.5%) of his 200 carries under Reid last year. Charles, meanwhile, took it up the gut on 63 (22.2%) out of his 283 carries. So, while Charles ran it up the middle more than twice as many times as McCoy did, he also had more carries overall and was the feature back for a team that had the 5th most rushing attempts in the league.
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Still, I doubt we’ll see Charles run straight ahead on more than a fifth of his carries again this year. The question is: who will?
With RB Peyton Hillis gone, the Chiefs no longer have a classic banger-style back. Behind Charles in the depth chart are Shaun Draughn and Cyrus Gray who have basically the same body types as Jamaal – all are between 5’10 and 6’ and weigh about 200 lbs. While Gray is a bit of a question mark, neither of those guys have shown themselves to be tougher or grittier than Charles, they’re just all-around less dynamic.
This is where RB Knile Davis is an interesting piece to examine. At 226 lbs., he has a heavier frame than any of the other backs in the stables, but he also has breakaway speed. He seems to have been mostly used as a kick returner in minicamps and OTA’s, but don’t be surprised if you see Reid call on him to smash forward on power runs with the hope that he can hit the hole and use his speed to make something of it.
Then again, McCoy’s backup in Philly, Wichita native Bryce Brown, ran it up the middle even less than he did — just 12% of the time – so who knows.
Should Charles be running up the middle in the first place?
Now this is perhaps the more interesting question, and my answer – sure, but no more than McCoy did.
The fact is that neither, McCoy, Brown or Charles have had much success up the middle one way or the other. None scored a touchdown or broke a gain of more than 17 yards running straight ahead in 2012.
I think the 12%-15% range is the right spot. The fact is that as with everything you do on offense, you have to mix it up to keep the defense honest. It may seem to make sense to use Charles for screens and runs to the outside where he can really break one off and bring in a bigger guy to pound away behind center, but doing so makes for a very transparent game plan.
Hillis ran up the middle for the Chiefs 41% of the time and gained just 3.6 yards per carry on average when doing so. Why? Because every coach and his mother knew that if Hillis was on the field, it was time to load the box. If Charles is there, position your linebackers to fill the outside gaps and contain. Consequently, the Chiefs got the opposite of what they intended. Charles actually outperformed the power back Hillis up the middle, with a 4.0 average and Hillis actually averaged 6.2 yards when running wide to the right – so naturally they only ran him that direction nine times all year.
No matter how large or small your running back is, he has to go up the middle sometimes, and counter-intuitively it is actually a strategic benefit to having similar-sized backs that are used everywhere and that keep the defense guessing.
Still, it’s obvious that Charles has the best opportunity to make a play on the outside, and its honestly not worth taking the risk of him getting injured or worn down but putting him at the bottom of a front-seven dog pile 10 times a game.
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I am very excited to see how Reid gets the ball into Charles’ hands and maximize his ability to move the rock downfield. With all of his grind-it-out plays over the last few seasons, it’s actually easy to forget that Charles currently holds the record for yards per carry among running backs in NFL history at 5.8, which is insane.
As long as he stays healthy, he’s going to get his, no worries there.