Is Jamaal Charles Still Worth a Top-3 Pick in Fantasy Football?

Can Charles still be an elite fantasy back in 2015?

One of the most exciting days of my childhood was when my grandparents bought me Pokemon Blue for Christmas. I opened the box, saw I had gotten exactly what I wanted, and then proceeded to ignore the rest of my presents while playing that bad boy well past my bed time.

Within the first several minutes of play you're asked to make an important decision that will define a large part of your overall gaming experience. You must choose between Bulbasaur, Squirtle, and Charmander as your first Pokemon.

I feel like there should be a bad Buzzfeed quiz about how depending upon which of the three you picked a person can learn a lot about you. If you chose Charmander, you're a risk-seeking adventurer who isn't afraid to dream big. If you chose Bulbasaur, you're a hippie, hipster, or contrarian; you like going against the mainstream. If you chose Squirtle, you're risk-averse and utilitarian.

Anyway, the gravity and terror of this initial decision has weighed heavy on my soul and I think of it often. Just last week, in fact, when I was forced, with the first pick overall in a recent MFL10, to choose between Le'Veon Bell (whose average draft position was 1.01), Eddie Lacy (1.02), and Jamaal Charles (1.03).

With the first overall pick, I saw Le'Veon Bell as someone who could set me back a bit in your first few weeks of fantasy (he's suspended for the first three games of the season), but has the potential to breathe hot fire over all of your opponents down the stretch. I saw Eddie Lacy as a safer option, with a potentially limited ceiling -- but someone who could help keep my team afloat all year.

And then I saw Jamaal Charles, my usual pick, and couldn't help but envision him as a beautiful green gigantic plant-toad. My typical pick in Pokemon was Bulbasaur, and much like Bulbasaur, I think Charles is being criminally underrated; in Rotoworld's recent mock he lasted all the way until pick 1.09.

There are two common narratives I've been seeing in fantasy circles. The first is that it's Jamaal Charles and that you should take him in the first three picks. The second is that he's old, he's declining, and Knile Davis will steal a significant amount of touches.

This article is my analysis of these comments in an attempt to determine if Charles is worthy of being your starting Pokemon early-first-round RB1.

The 2015 Offense

Before we move any further I should remind the reader that, here at numberFire, we're all about a metric called Net Expected Points (NEP) which tells us how many points -- real points -- a player adds or loses for his team based on expectation. It helps remove the flaws of traditional statistics, where a 10-yard gain on 3rd-and-15 is worth the same as a 10-yard gain on 3rd-and-9.

By our metrics, last season, Kansas City ranked second overall in schedule-adjusted Rushing NEP per play and 17th overall in Adjusted Passing NEP per pla. According to Pro Football Focus, they had an offensive line that ranked fifth-worst in the league.

There has always been a strong correlation between a team's passing efficiency and the fantasy success of that team's starting running back, and the importance of the offensive line on a running back's success need not be reiterated.

In 2015 however, things should be looking up for the Kansas City passing offense, offensive line, and thus, Charles.

In early March, the Chiefs received a major upgrade to their receiving corps by signing Jeremy Maclin who ranked ninth overall in Reception NEP last year. Two days later, they released Dwayne Bowe who ranked 39th in the same metric. The Chiefs weren't done making upgrades at the position when, in the third round, they traded up for wide receiver Chris Conley. Albert Wilson, who came on strong towards the end of last year, could be in line for more playing time as well.

After Charles publicly asked that the Chiefs address the offensive line in the offseason, Kansas City granted his wish by drafting an offensive guard, Mitch Morse, in the middle of the second round and then shipped their fifth-round pick for Saints guard Ben Grubbs.

However, the biggest boost to the Chiefs offense could be coming from the familiar face of Travis Kelce. Last season, Kelce, rehabbing from a knee injury, wasn't cleared to start running until a month before training camp and was on limited reps for much of the early part of the 2014 season. There's no guarantee the numbers will be sustainable at a higher volume, but Kelce was highly efficient last year -- ranking just behind Gronk in both Target NEP and Reception NEP per target while catching a higher percentage of his targets.

Not only was he highly efficient on offense, but he was also ranked by Pro Football Focus as the most effective run-blocking tight end last year. So, the more time he spends on the field, it seems, the better for Jamaal Charles.

Declining Numbers?

In Point per Reception (PPR) fantasy leagues, Charles went from 308 points (first overall) in 2013 to 210 points (seventh overall) last year: a significant drop. Entering his 28th year and eighth season in the league, fantasy owners want to know if, in 2015, Charles will look more like his 2013 self or if 2014 was a sign of declining production.

Though his fantasy production did decrease, he was still highly efficient. While he ranked fourth in yards per rushing attempt last year (5.0) -- the same number as 2014 -- what was different was his usage.

He saw 53 fewer total carries and 45 fewer targets. Was this due to injuries, Andy Reid's game planning, or the rise of back-up Knile Davis? Well, according to Charles, it was the injuries. He didn't feel right all season. He first twisted an ankle shortly after the end of training camp, sat out most of Week 2 and all of Week 3, and then played through foot, back, shoulder, knee, hamstring, and head injuries throughout the rest of the season. Though, he says now, he's fully healed and feels like he's 20- or 21-years-old again.

If Jamaal really was suffering through a multitude of injuries last season, it would come as a surprise to anyone looking at our NEP data. Last season, Jamaal Charles ranked as our most efficient running back with at least 100 carries, posting a 0.11 Rushing NEP per play, which was actually a big improvement on his Rushing NEP per play score of 0.05 in 2013.

It appears the rumors of his decline have been greatly exaggerated. So, if the passing game and offensive line are better in 2015 and he's still the same old Charles, the only thing standing in the way of him and top-three fantasy production would be more limited usage; but if he's healthy this season, why wouldn't the Chiefs feed their best offensive weapon?

Charles In Charge

After destroying the combine in 2013, Knile Davis burst onto the fantasy football scene in Week 2 of last season. After Charles went down with an injury, Davis compiled a total of 318 rushing yards with 3 touchdowns on 70 carries and had 7 receptions for 38 receiving yards over the course of a three-week span.

Davis would end his season with 134 rushing attempts, 463 rushing yards, 25 targets, 147 receiving yards, and 7 total touchdowns. Many are projecting that his number of carries and targets will remain constant next season. Davis himself just last week said he doesn't see a gap between his talent level and that of Charles'.

Okay, well luckily, we can be the judge of that.

YearNameRushesRankRush NEPRankRush NEP/PRankSuccess RateRank
2013Jamaal Charles2601013.9350.051046.15%10
2013Knile Davis7057-8.6335-0.125128.57%58
2014Jamaal Charles2051622.1030.11248.29%8
2014Knile Davis13437-21.4263-0.166031.34%51

Over the past two years, Charles has demolished Davis in almost every meaningful rushing metric. Moving the baseline down to 65 rushing attempts, in 2013, Charles ranked top-10 in Rushing NEP, Rushing NEP per play, and Success Rate (the percentage of rushes that lead to positive NEP gains), while Davis ranked eighth worst in the league in Rushing NEP per play and dead last in Success Rate.

Last season, Charles mirrored his impressive feat, finishing third in Rushing NEP, second in Rushing NEP per play (or first if the baseline moves back up to 100 rushing attempts), and eighth in Success Rate. Last season, Davis ranked third worst in Rushing NEP, sixth worst in Rushing NEP per play, and fifth worst in Success Rate. In yards per carry too, Charles has averaged 1.5 yards per carry higher than Davis in each of the last two seasons. So, in the same offense Jamaal Charles ranked as one of the best runners in the league, Knile Davis ranked as one of the worst.

While it's clear Davis is nowhere near the talent running the ball as Charles, and just isn't very good at it in general, a huge part of Charles' fantasy value is in receiving the ball out of the backfield, so, it's important we take a look at those numbers as well.

YearNameTargetsRecRec NEPRankRec NEP/TargetRankCatch Rate
2013Jamaal Charles1047054.6610.53567.31%
2013Knile Davis15115.59530.372873.33%
2014Jamaal Charles594016.31220.284567.80%
2014Knile Davis251611.26380.451964.00%

In 2013, Charles led all running backs in Reception NEP and finished fifth in Reception NEP per target, which is a crazy level of sustained efficiency considering I had to set the baseline for only 10 catches here. Meanwhile, in 2013, Knile Davis managed to post a higher Catch Rate (again, on a much smaller sample) but couldn't sniff Charles on per-target efficiency.

Last season, however, while Charles posted a higher Catch Rate this time around, Davis was much more efficient, posting a 0.45 Reception NEP per target score to Charles' 0.28. Is this a sign that Charles is slipping as a receiving back and that Davis is more effective in this area of the game? Could he be in line for more third down work in 2015?

No, it's really only a likely due to a small sample size and the fact that one of Davis' only 16 receptions went for 70 yards and a score in a game against the Raiders.

Andy Reid tends to pick a running back and stick with him throughout the year. While Reid may inexplicably forget he has a star running back some games, the back-up is typically far more neglected. Looking back at Andy Reid running backs like LeSean McCoy and Brian Westbrook who were typically good for 300 to 350 touches per season if healthy, their back ups were lucky to see anything more than 50 touches a season (unless the feature back suffered a significant injury).

I think that's the only reason we saw an increase in touches from Davis, and especially considering how poorly he performed, I expect that number to drop this upcoming season.


Charles is really just an insane talent. Among running backs, he's the all-time leader in rushing yards per carry with a 5.5 average to his name; this number is 0.3 yards higher than even the next closest running back (Jim Brown). He's also never had a season where he's averaged fewer than 5.0 yards per carry. That's just crazy.

His NEP marks in his career are just as impressive.

It's hard to say whether or not Charles should be a lock for one of the first picks in your fantasy draft without a more in-depth analysis into the other options available, but he's arguably one of the best running backs of our generation, his offense should be greatly improved this year, he seems to be healthy going into this season, and Knile Davis should not be considered a threat.

If you're looking for the right companion to help you take down the Elite-4 win your fantasy league, Jamaal Charles should make for an excellent choice in the early first round of your draft.