Don't Call It a Comeback: Jamaal Charles Is the Top Running Back in Fantasy Football
Full discretion: I'm going to open this up with all my cards on the table.
I began this article looking to outline why I had been drafting Le'Veon Bell as my top fantasy running back for 2016. But the more research I did, the more the same name kept popping up ahead of Bell and making me feel like I had made some mistakes in my earlier drafts.
He's a guy going largely overlooked in the "top running back" discussion this year.
It's Jamaal Charles.
According to MyFantasyLeague's average draft position (ADP) data, Charles is currently going as the eighth running back off the board as a mid-to-late second-round pick.
But to me, Charles should be going as the top running back off the board. And there are some legitimate reasons for it.
The Best Running Back in Fantasy Football
Let's start things off with a look at how Charles has stacked up among running backs over his career.
Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) is a measure of a running back's efficiency, showing how many points the back contributes compared to expectation level.
I'm also looking at fantasy points per game instead of raw fantasy points for two reason, one of them being that, as our own JJ Zachariason has always stressed, "fantasy football is a weekly game." A player that contributes exactly 7 fantasy points each week and stays healthy for 16 games doesn't help your team as much as a player who scores 14 points each game and only plays 8 games.
The other reason, which is closely related, is that with the inherent injury risk at running back, you want to draft for upside. Just because a back hasn't been injured in the past doesn't mean they're "safe" to not get injured in the future, so you want to draft somebody that you know will produce big numbers if they're healthy, not just draft somebody because you haven't seen them get injured before.
|Year||Rush NEP per Carry Rank*||Fantasy Points per Game Rank|
*Among backs with 50-plus carries
**Charles saw only 12 carries before losing the 2011 season to injury
Since the 2010 season when he first saw 200 carries, Charles' only time finishing outside the top-10 in fantasy points per game (PPR) among running backs was in 2011, when he was injured early in his second game of the year. Since that 2010 emergence, he has as many finishes inside the top five as he does outside of it.
This isn't just volume-based either, as he has consistently been among the league's most efficient running backs in Rushing NEP per carry, where he again has as many career years ranking in the top five as he has outside of it.
This comes with the obvious caveat that Charles is coming off of his second ACL injury. I've already touched on why we should generally overlook the perceived difference in injury risk between running backs, and with the way that elite running backs (including Charles himself) have shown an ability to come back from ACL surgery and remain incredibly effective, you should still have confidence in his outstanding efficiency, consistency and production.
Because this article was going to be about why Bell was my top running back, and because Bell has the highest ADP among running backs, he's the first guy I want to take a quick look at in comparison to Charles.
While Bell has been outstanding through his three years in the league, ranking top 5 in fantasy points per game among running backs twice and top 15 in Rushing NEP per carry twice, his production hasn't matched Charles'.
Charles has posted more fantasy points per game than Bell in two of the past three seasons (also with a higher mark if we look at those three seasons combined), has finished with a higher Rushing NEP per carry in all three seasons, and has finished with a higher Reception NEP per target twice, our measure of receiving efficiency.
Charles has Bell beat in both fantasy and real-world categories over the course of his career, and his numbers soundly dismantled my original stance on Bell being the top fantasy back this season.
The Youth Movement
In one of his seminal works, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, Nassim Nicholas Taleb talks about the idea of "neomania" or the "love of the modern for its own sake". While I'm not the first to apply Taleb's work to fantasy sports -- and surely won't be the last -- it serves as a useful and interesting way to look at what a lot of people already have some idea of as "rookie fever", while expanding it to include breakout players who aren't rookies.
Taleb outlines that, as a general rule, the longer something has been around in the past, the longer we can expect it to be around in the future. Now, obviously in fantasy sports that's complicated a bit by the fact that players can develop, improve, or deteriorate with age, but it remains a useful concept.
With the short, 16-game seasons in the NFL, we're exposed to a lot of variance with production, and it's not as simple as "good players will produce good numbers, and bad players will produce bad numbers". As the sample sizes increase, though, we can have increased confidence in how accurate the numbers are. If a player, like Charles, shows over six seasons that he's incredibly efficient and an outstanding fantasy producer, we can be fairly sure that that he is genuinely excellent, and that he's likely to repeat the performance. When a player only produces big numbers over a single season though -- especially when buoyed by an exceptionally good stretch of games -- there's room for a lot more concern over whether that is repeatable.
The bulk of the backs being picked ahead of Charles this season are young backs with minimal experience, coming off of breakout seasons, being the "new" or "modern" top running backs, compared to Charles, who has averaged 20.8 fantasy points per game (PPR) over the past three seasons, the best mark among running backs.
Todd Gurley's rookie breakout in 2015 wasn't even an entire season. If we exclude his first appearance in Week 3 (in which he scored 2.4 fantasy points), he has only 12 Weeks of production, with 17.4 fantasy points per game.
For David Johnson's breakout, we have an even smaller sample to go from. His significant fantasy production came from Week 12 and on, averaging 8.8 fantasy points per game before that and 20.6 after the breakout. Freeman and Johnson, even when we shrink the sample size down to less than a full season, focusing on their most productive stretches, haven't produced more fantasy points per game than Charles has averaged since 2013 (a 35-game span).
Devonta Freeman at least gave us a full season of production but, again, even that sample size isn't huge, and it came in a season in which he was fourth in the NFL in carries and third among running backs in targets -- a workload that's hard to project repeating for any player. He's also a far less efficient rusher than Charles, posting a 0.03 Rushing NEP per carry in 2015, a number that Charles has bested in each of the past three seasons.
As for Ezekiel Elliott (currently being drafted as the fourth running back), going back to the 2000 season, a rookie running back has never cracked the 20.0 fantasy points per game mark. Regardless of your feelings on Elliott the player or Elliott the draft pick, selecting him as your top running back in fantasy this year is counting on him to do something that hasn't been done and to be historically great right off the bat, which is not something you want to have to rely on.
Now, this isn't me arguing that these young guys can't repeat their performances, or that they can't improve and put up even better numbers than they did last year. But taking these small samples of production and trying to project players to be the best in the league (a position that it is very difficult to reach and project, regardless of how easy it feels in the off-season) is a huge stretch when you can instead draft that guy who has consistently proven himself as one of the league's best backs, both from a real-football and fantasy perspective.
Charles is one of the most efficient running backs ever, with three of the top-25 Rushing NEP per carry marks recorded by a high-volume (150-plus carries) back since 2000, making him the only back with more than two. He is also heavily involved in the passing game, plays in an offense that is regularly among the league's most run-heavy, and has proven himself time and time again to be able to translate all of that into elite fantasy production.
He may not be the sexy, trendy pick, but if you're drafting a running back in the first round this year, it should be Jamaal Charles.