Spotlight: Jamaal Charles

posted by Mike Brown on Jun 28th


Mike Brown's thoughts

Jamaal Charles didn't take over the NFL with a ton of fanfare. The third round pick out of Texas entered the league in 2008 and played sparingly but effectively, with 357 yards on 67 rushes (5.3 YPC). The only time he saw double digit carries in a game was during a Week 9 contest against the Bucs, and he tallied 108 yards on his 18 runs. Despite his limited involvement on the ground, Charles showed his value in the short passing game by hauling in 27 passes for 272 yards.

Heading into his second season, Charles was still behind veteran Larry Johnson on the Kansas City depth chart. When the headache of dealing with Johnson became too much for Chiefs management to deal with, many thought Charles would finally get his chance. Instead, what happened was that the team looked to a committee approach. Charles was a part of it, but the team's plan was for him to share the workload with Kolby Smith. Either the coaching staff didn't think too highly of Charles, or they didn't realize what they had (or perhaps a combination of both).

After sharing the workload for two games, Smith injured his ankle and did not return again the rest of the year. Charles, meanwhile, only turned in one of the great half-seasons in league history the rest of the way. Including the Week 10 game that he split with Smith, Charles ran the ball 161 times for 968 yards and seven touchdowns. He added another 23 receptions for 158 yards and a touchdown through the air. Projected over a full season, here are what those stats work out to:

322 rushes
1,936 rushing yards (6.0 YPC)
14 rushing TD
46 receptions
316 receiving yards
2 receiving TD

Those numbers would have placed him behind only Chris Johnson in terms of fantasy rankings. Obviously you can't simply prorate those numbers out and call it a day, since a lot of different factors come into play (injuries, opponents, etc). But an eight game sample of that caliber is enough to demonstrate that Charles was not only good, but historically good, over the season's second half.

This offseason, Charles is one of the more hotly debated players in fantasy circles. Is he the guy who lit up the league at every turn in the latter half of 2009? Will he put up breathtaking numbers with a heavier workload? Or is he the undersized scat back who happened to have an incredible run, but will now drift back to the pack? Will newcomers cut into his workload enough to render him a fantasy bust?

Positives

  • In 2009, Charles became the first back in league history to gain at least 1,100 yards on fewer than 200 carries. He's an explosive runner, and averaged 5.9 yards per carry a year ago. Those sorts of numbers don't happen by accident.
  • Charles did a lot of his damage against poor defenses last year. That may be the case again this season, as all three teams he'll face in the AFC West (six games) were near the bottom of the NFL rushing defense rankings in 2009.
  • The numbers put up by Charles were over a long enough period of time to suggest he's not simply a fluke who happened to luck into a good situation. His talent level, size and running style remind a lot of people of Chris Johnson from Tennessee.

Negatives

  • Free agent Thomas Jones was brought in from the New York Jets to help reduce the wear and tear on Charles, who underwent shoulder surgery in January. The team may not feel that the diminutive Charles can handle a large workload. At the very least, Jones is expected to handle the goal line work.
  • Charlie Weis was brought in to be the team's new offensive coordinator. Weis has historically leaned towards using the passing game more heavily (though Charles is adept in the pass game). Any change from a year ago brings in an unknown variable of how it'll affect everyone on offense going forward.
  • The Chiefs aren't expected to be a very good team, as they continue to retool and rebuild. Therefore, there may not be a great deal of touches to go around on the ground. Charles will be almost forced to hit several home runs and big gainers just to keep up.

Final thoughts

The arrival of Jones is supposed to signal doom for Charles. But the fact is, Jones put up 4.2 yards per carry working with an outstanding Jets offensive line. How is that going to translate now that he's going to the Chiefs and their sub-par unit? He has been productive the last few seasons, but how much of that is a product of the line quality versus his own talent? Would it really shock anyone to see Jones arrive in Kansas City and flop? But let's assume for a moment that he doesn't. Let's assume Jones shows up and plays well.

Charles is okay with that. He's already on record as saying he's fine with the two-back approach, since that's what most teams are gearing towards these days anyway. Charles knows he's going to get his touches out of the backfield, his receptions (even if second round pick Dexter McCluster is going to steal away a few backfield catches), and yes even his touchdowns. Because unlike Jones, Charles can score every time he touches the ball, no matter where he is on the field.

What it comes down to for me is this. I think the fact that Charles accomplished things that were never done before means that we can't call him a flash in the pan along the lines of historic busts like Kevan Barlow or William Green. The type of running Charles did wasn't simply compiling numbers out of volume. It was out of this world stuff, and was up there alongside Chris Johnson in terms of every-week contributions from the RB position.

I will admit one caveat that I will pay close attention to with Charles is the shoulder situation. Most people only worry about a running back's knees and ankles, but the shoulders actually absorb just as much punishment as any other spot on the body. I'll be monitoring that closely throughout training camp, and I'd like to see him get hit a few times before I have my first draft. But, assuming he hasn't lost his ability to hit the hole hard due to the shoulder surgery, we've got to expect that he'll still put up a very respectable yards per carry average. I've got him at 4.8 YPC, but even a conservative estimate would put that at 4.5 based on how well he's done his first two seasons (5.3 and 5.9). And now that the Chiefs know what they've got in him, can you possibly see them reducing his overall workload from what it was last year? Of course not. So even if he only gets 50% of the rushing workload (he had 50% last year despite not starting the first nine games), that still works out to at least 200 rushes - more than enough of a workload to warrant his draft slot, considering how much of an impact he'll have on the passing game as well as the upside to do a whole lot more.

And that's the most important aspect to keep in mind. My projections are conservative, low-end, baseline numbers. If he is able to snare a larger percentage of the rushing duties, if the Chiefs lean on him more heavily than in 2009, or if Thomas Jones suddenly realizes that he's 32 years old, Charles becomes a potential top-3 running back and all you would have spent was a late second round pick. The name of the game is maximizing upside to win your league, and that's exactly what Charles can do for you.


Quotations from the message board thread

To view the entire Player Spotlight thread (there's a ton of fantastic commentary in there), click here.

mjr said:

The shoulder surgery argument:

It's logical to think a back who had surgery on his shoulder might struggle to break through a defensive line, but it's just as logical to realize that sometimes a surgery is performed specifically to correct problems that have been holding a player back. Frank Gore had off-season surgery on BOTH of his shoulders early in '06 to correct dislocation problems. He then went on to pound out 1695 yards and 8 TDs on the ground that year while hauling in 61 receptions for 485 yards and a score.

The presence of Thomas Jones/McCluster:

Two reasons why this doesn't concern me at all. First, bellcow-backs are a rare exception rather than the rule in the league these days. If you don't have a top 5 or 6 draft pick, you're probably not going to have one on your fantasy team. You shouldn't be using this argument to pass up on any back near the end of the first and beyond.

Secondly, two healthy, effective backs can score more TDs than one. So while it's true Jones might get more goal line carries, that doesn't mean Charles' TD totals absolutely must decline as a result. Most people who resort to this reasoning were the same type to predict Chris Johnson would get maybe 4 or 5 TDs in 08. Yet he ran in 9 TDs while Lendale pounded in 15.

The injury prone argument:

A lot of people who chime in with this one didn't seem to be paying much attention to him last year. Haley called out Charles in front of the cameras last season after he got hurt a few times, saying he wouldn't rest Charles because he wanted him to prove he could play bruised and beaten. Charles not only continued to play but he also played very well, proving at least to Haley that he wasn't fragile.

The good stat, bad run D argument:

Now that some realize Charles played hurt in several games last year, maybe those lofty stats he put up on soft defenses could be seen in a different light. I cant tell you how many times I've licked my chops waiting for a completely healthy CJ3 or Gore to put up a monster game against a soft D...only to get mediocre numbers. You can knock on Charles all you want, but he did what a good back is supposed to do in those situations and he did it while he was less than 100%. Besides, who would draft a back who couldn't pat his stats on soft run Ds anyway? As for the better run D's he went up against, he struggled, of course. That's why they call them solid run D's. But Charles is dynamic enough to find other ways to be effective in these tougher situations. Those were the games he ran a punt return all the way to the house or caught those balls in the end zone. This dude finds a way.

Todem said:

Everyone will overdraft Shonne Greene and stay away from from Jamaal Charles.....yet in the end I am going on record and saying in PPR scoring Charles will smoke Greene this year.

This kid has the goods. He has world class speed....WORLD CLASS. Speed kills in the NFL if you know how to use it. Charles proved (and stop with who he played against that get's so over rated and over analyzed it's really absurd) he can be a feature back. When he was drafted it was for the sole purpose of replacing Larry Johnson at some point. This kid can ball and he will have every opportunity to be the lead dog. I am a huge Thomas Jones fan...he has always been a hard worker and really has given me plenty to cheer for as a great RB3 over the last several years. But let's face the facts. He is coming off a 347 carry season....he clearly broke down last year and was very uneffective in the later stages of the season and post season. Do I think he get's some work...of course. he will get it when Charles needs a breather from tearing up defenses. Charles is a 3 down weapon and can score from anywhere on the field. He is the Chiefs very best playmaker bar none. Dexter McCluster is being brought in to be a Percy Harvin. A guy they can line up all over the field and ultimatly become a top notch slot WR ala Wes Welker. McCluster has mad skills no doubt. he was not drafted to be a feature RB. No way.

Charles is one of the guys if you have the balls to grab early...will win a league for you. When you can pair him up with another stud...forget it. He IMO will perfrom as an RB1 and can be drafted as an RB2.

Thomsen said:

Charles averaged 20 carries a game through the last 8 games last season. He didn't show signs of wearing down, on the contrary he seemed better and better. Haley called him out, and he answered the call. Jones is still a good player, but that is because he brings leadership, toughness and experience. Jones won't be expected to produce 5 yards per carry behind that line, they brought him in for other reasons. When the games get out of hand, it will be Charles who is getting the ball. He is the playmaker, the one that makes things happen as a receiver out of the backfield and as a tailback.

Charles is a differencemaker, and watching him play it's difficult for me too see, why people think he will be worse than last year? McCluster won't impact his carries, if anything Charles will benefit from his presence underneath.

His schedule is very nice, with games against the browns, bills, rams, jaguars, broncosx2, seahawks, raidersx2.

The Jacket said:

I've given up trying to change people's preconceived opinions. 2 things I will say (and these are not to support a 1500 yard prediction, just my opinions on relative points):

1.) Charles is not some system back/guy who feasted on bad defenses and nothing else. He was ELITE in college and has been elite in terms of YPC/YPT since coming into the league. People forget just how good he was at Texas. Charlie Casserly called him the steal of that draft. The typically overrated size concerns must be the only reason he fell because he has all the talent in the world. Exceptional vision, balance, moves and the speed goes without saying.

2.) Did he face some weaker run defenses last year? Yes. Well, lemme clue you in to something right here ... THAT'LL BE NO DIFFERENT THIS YEAR! Some want to list a single bad game against maybe the best defense in football but this year he faces a LOT of bad defenses. In fact he's got one of the easiest schedules in the league. So who cares if his biggest games come against bad defenses (ignoring that the same is true of all players in the league)?

Oh, and the team offense has unquestionably improved on paper, too, so it's not like that's a reason to expect a decrease in production. The passing game should be better (can't be much worse), the blockers will be better and the coaching staff is impressive with Weis on board.


Jamaal Charles projections

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