Why Jamaal Charles Is the Best Running Back in the NFL
For as great as Matt Forte has been in the rushing and passing game for the Chicago Bears, for as nearly-record-setting as DeMarco Murray has been for the Dallas Cowboys, and for as getting-to-the-next-level as Le'Veon Bell has been for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Jamaal Charles has been even better this season for the Kansas City Chiefs.
And he has done so despite missing, essentially, two full games with an injury and one full game because Andy Reid was Andy Reid in Week 1, giving Charles just seven carries because Andy Reid's decisions don't always make sense.
Of course, because this is numberFire, I won't be relying on subjectivity or raw stats to make my case here. Instead, I'll show why Charles is the top back in the league by using our in-house advanced metric, Net Expected Points (NEP).
If you don't know yet, NEP is our way of gauging how far above or below expectation a player is playing, and by doing this, we can determine how many points a player adds (or subtracts) from his team's expected point output. It helps balance out inflated stats, such as a 10-yard run on 3rd-and-20 in the shadow of a player's own goalposts, and favors plays that increase a team's scoring potential, such as a 10-yard run on 3rd-and-9 to get a team a first down and enter the red zone.
Okay, but Charles did basically miss three games compared to the other top backs in the league, so I'd have to be making some assumptions about if he could keep up his pace and be on par with Murray, Forte, and company. Right?
Well, not exactly.
Leading the Pack
According to Rushing NEP, Charles is the best running back in football. Rushing NEP, which is a cumulative metric, could have inherently penalized Charles since he has missed some action, but the fact of the matter is that running the ball is very inefficient, and lots of volume isn't always a great way to approach it. But Charles has simply been more efficient on his carries than any other back of similar volume, and that has added up this season in the right ways.
Here are Charles' Rushing NEP, Rushing NEP per carry, and Total NEP (which includes receiving production, too) numbers and ranks among the 40 running backs who have seen at least 75 carries this year.
|Player||Rushing NEP||Rank||Rushing NEP/Rush||Rank||Total NEP||Rank|
Charles, who has 132 carries on the year (12th most among the 40 backs and 112 fewer than Murray has seen), has climbed the Rushing NEP ladder by being more efficient per carry than any other back with that much volume. For further context, only three other backs have Rushing NEP per carry totals equal to or greater than 0.10: Justin Forsett (0.15), Mark Ingram (0.11), and Marshawn Lynch (0.10).
And, as everyone who knows anything knows, Charles also gets it done in the passing game. He ranks fourth in Total NEP through Week 11, and while his receiving numbers aren't quite on par with his rushing stats, he does still rank 13th among those 40 running backs in Reception NEP per target.
In terms of rushing efficiency at a high volume, Charles is currently the best in the business, and before you try to make the assumption that he gets a significant boost because of his home run ability, let me tell you that Charles ranks third in Success Rate among that running back subset. Charles adds positive NEP for the Chiefs on 50.76% of his carries.
The rest of the top five in Success Rate might not surprise you, as they are generally downhill runners and don't spend much time in the backfield who bank on breaking off big gains. Lynch (52.27%), Ahmad Bradshaw (51.65%), Ingram (50.72%), and Jeremy Hill (50.44%) are the only other backs who have a success rate above 50.00%. Charles gets it done on every carry as well as anyone else.
And before you try to make a different assumption - that it's the offensive line - just know that his teammate and touchdown vulture, Knile Davis, has a Success Rate of just 32.43%, worst of the 40 backs with 75 or more carries.
Historically Good Season
I'm really not into crowning GOATs and getting uppity about where somebody ranks among the all-time greats, and I approach any type of historical debate with great reserve mainly because for a fantasy football and analytics guy, I'm not that opinionated. But when I say that Charles is having one of the best rushing seasons of the past 14 years, I mean it.
Since and including 2000, 328 running backs have seen at least 200 carries, a mark Charles is almost sure to hit by season's end. Of those 328, only 10 have maintained a Rushing NEP per carry of greater than 0.15. Well, that's not right. Just eight guys have done it because two - Clinton Portis and Priest Holmes - have done it twice. So, it's unlikely that Charles can maintain that pace.
Well, Charles does own the second-best Rushing NEP per carry mark we've ever recorded among all 200-plus carry rushers since 2000. Charles' 0.19 mark in 2010 is second only to Marshall Faulk's 0.20 in 2000. Charles has also maintained a Rushing NEP per carry of 0.13 on 193 rushes in 2009.
I'm not saying regression to the mean - Charles' career Rushing NEP per carry average prior to this season is 0.08 on 1,047 carries - isn't coming for Charles, but he has shown the ability to finish with a sky high Rushing NEP per carry average before, and a season quite like his isn't very common.
He also has never finished a season with a negative Rushing NEP if you excuse his 12-carry injury-shortened 2011 season.
Since Charles entered the league until last season (from 2008-2013), 17 other running backs have totaled at least 1,000 carries, and none of them, not Adrian Peterson, not Arian Foster, and certainly not Chris Johnson, can make that claim.
I'm not saying Charles is hands-down the best running back of the past 14 years, but I could never say for sure that he isn't. His raw numbers are as good as anyone's, all things considered, and his metrics are among the best of the bunch.
GOAT or not, Charles is right now the best running back in football in a lot of ways, and really, not enough people are noticing.