Is Jamaal Charles Still An Elite NFL Running Back?


With the NFL offseason now upon us, fans of the Kansas City Chiefs are fully engulfed in discussions on free agency and the NFL draft. While there are a number of positions on the Chiefs roster that could stand to be upgraded, one position where most KC fans feel confident is at running back. That is because the position is filled by a player many believe to be the most talented on the team (if not a close second to Justin Houston). That player is, of course, Jamaal Charles. While a KC fan could spend numerous hours reading articles and blogs discussing and dissecting the Chiefs passing game and especially the merits of QB Alex Smith, the abilities of Jamaal Charles are mostly taken for granted. My question today is, should that be the case?

Anyone with two working eyes that watched the Chiefs play in 2014 can attest to the fact that Charles is far from washed up. He is still clearly the most talented player on the Chiefs offense and his status as the Chiefs starting running back and frankly as the focal point of their offense is not in question. However, I do think it warrants asking if Charles is still one of the elite running backs in all of the NFL. After all, Charles played almost the entire season and finished just 13th in the NFL in rushing. He just barely topped the 1,000 yard mark in 2014, finishing with 1,033 yards. That was down about 250 yards from 2013 and almost 500 yards from 2012. So in other words, Charles has seen his rushing yards drop by about 250 yards per season the past couple of years. In that trend were to continue in 2015 it would mean a total of less than 800 yards rushing.

While some might make an argument that Jamaal Charles is an equally important part of the passing game, those numbers took an even bigger drop in 2014. In JC’s first year in Andy Reid’s offense he finished with an impressive 70 receptions for 693 yards. This past season, despite the well documented lack of production from the wide receiver position, Charles still saw a big drop off with just 40 receptions for 291 yards. That’s about a 58% reduction in receiving yards from last season.

Recent trends in the NFL warn that most running backs don’t have a gradual decline in production over numerous years. A chart of running back production as they approach the 30 year age barrier much more resembles a steep cliff than a lightly declining slope. Jamaal Charles is not at that dreaded running back age yet, but at 28 years old its not too far away. Another concern is the combination of Charles’ smaller stature (5-11, 199 lbs) and physical running style. Many backs Charles size are strictly “change of pace” backs that don’t often fight for the hard yards up the middle. Charles, on the other hand is an every down back that has the running style of a back that’s 6-2, 225 lbs. Therefore, the nearly 900 touches that Charles has accumulated on that smaller frame over the past three seasons start to add to the concern of a JC drop off on the horizon.

Now, while these past few paragraphs don’t paint the most positive picture, let’s not put Jamaal Charles out to pasture just yet. While I stand behind everything that I’ve just written, there is one small problem with the “Jamaal Charles is on the decline” stance. Namely, when I watch him play I still see a special player. Simply put, Jamaal Charles still passes the “eye test”. So I set out to see if there was anyway I could justify what my eyes were telling me. I decided to dig a little deeper into the running back production from last season.

I limited my study to the thirteen running backs that topped 1,000 yards rushing last season. I decided to look at the following numbers for each back:

Yards Rushing
Rushing TDs
Yards Per Carry
The Combined Pro Football Focus Offensive Line Run Blocking Grade For His Team
The Offensive Passing Yards For His Team
The Offensive Passing TDs For His Team

The first three categories are the standard stats that one usually sees associated with running backs and need no explanation, but let me briefly explain why I wanted to look at the last three stats. First, I wanted to see how well the offensive lines blocked for each of these 1,000 yard rushers. My belief was that Jamaal Charles did a fantastic job of being productive despite some abysmal blocking in front of him, but since I’m aware of my own “homer” status, I needed outside justification. Second, I wanted to see what kind of passing games the other running backs had to open up the field and take the focus/pressure off the running game.

After looking at all this data I made the chart that you will find below. In it, you’ll find all the stats mentioned above plus rankings of where each back ranked in that area. Keep in mind, this is not their rank in the entire NFL, but simply a rank of where they compared to the other backs that topped 1,000 yards last season. So thirteenth would be the worst ranking in this study.

Then I combined each RB’s rankings for PFF OL Run Blocking Grade, Team Passing Yards, and Team Passing TDs to make one “RB Support Score”. So if a RB finsihed with the best OL pass blocking grade (1), his team had the third most passing yards of the 1,000 yard backs (3), and the second most passing TDs (2) his combined “RB Support Score” would be 6. On the other hand if a RB finished tenth in all those areas his combined “RB Support Score” would be 30. Obviously, the lower the score, the better the RB’s team supported him. This was my attempt to see how easy or difficult these running backs’ teams made things for them. The results are below.

If that’s more numbers than you care to take the time to sift through, let me point out some highlights. Of these thirteen 1,000 yard running backs, Jamaal Charles had the second worst run blocking offensive line, the second fewest passing yards by his offense, and his team tied for the fewest passing TDs. His “RB Support Score” of 36 (ranking 12th in all three areas) was the worst score of any of these running backs. Despite that, he ranked 4th in yards per carry beating out the NFL’s four top rushers (DeMarco Murray, Le’Veon Bell, LeSean McCoy, and Marshawn Lynch) in that area. Murray, Bell, and McCoy were the top three in the “RB Support Score”, meaning they got the best combination of run blocking from their line and prolific passing production on offense to open up the field for them.

Take LeSean McCoy, the number three rusher in the NFL last season rushed for only 286 yards more than Jamaal Charles did despite the fact that he had 106 more carries and his OL’s run blocking grade was 100.1 points higher than KC’s (+61.9 compared to -38.2). When you look at it that way, what Jamaal Charles did last season seems pretty impressive. It is my opinion that these numbers support the idea that Charles production drop off last season had much more to do with the team around him than with any decline in his abilities.

Jamaal Charles is still a 28 year old 5-11, 199 lbs NFL running back with nearly 900 touches over the past three seasons. The Chiefs would be wise not to overwork him moving forward. It would seem smart to have Knile Davis pick up some more carries next season. However, I believe that Jamaal Charles is still one of the true elite running backs in the NFL and while they may want to protect him from overuse, his abilities are still intact and the Chiefs should do whatever they can to utilize them.

The research that I did for this piece has only strengthened my position that upgrading the offensive line should be the Chiefs number one priority this offseason. I already documented the affect offensive line play has on Alex Smith’s performance in a piece last month. If you are on the fence about what to do with the offensive line and haven’t read it yet, I would encourage you to do so. I believe that the combination of information presented in that piece and this one make a pretty indisputable case for fixing the offensive line at any cost.

If the Chiefs could move the offensive line from the weakness column to the strength column I believe their efficient QB and elite running back would both flourish and give the Chiefs enough offense to consistently outscore their opponents (especially with their emerging defense). Yes, I would like the wide receiver position upgraded as well, but games are won in the trenches. The Chiefs have one of the best weapons in football in running back Jamaal Charles. Nobody knows how long he will be able to sustain this type of special play. The Chiefs would be wise to do everything in their power to get the most of him while they still can.

As always, thanks for reading and GO CHIEFS!!!!!!!!!!!!!