If you find yourself debating who the best running back in the NFL is over the course of the next few months, don’t be afraid to say Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles. Adrian Peterson and LeSean McCoy get all the accolades, but Charles is just as good, or better.
Lately, Peterson and McCoy sit almost uncontested at the top of the unofficial running back rankings. Charles isn’t even the consensus No. 3—a ranking that may still sell him short.
There would probably be no doubt about Charles’ status if not for the fact that he missed 14 games in 2011 with a torn ACL. Despite the fact that he has still put up huge numbers, Charles has flown somewhat under the radar for a top back.
It’s about time everyone realized that Charles is one of the great running backs of his generation. Charles is 27 and won’t turn 30 until the very end of the 2016 season, so he has a couple of good years left in his legs as well.
Who is the best running back in the NFL
Even though Peterson set a new standard when it comes to recovery time from a torn ACL, Charles had to overcome something much more difficult—a great personal tragedy. That’s not to minimize Peterson’s Borg-like healing or the tragedy of losing a son he had just met, but merely to draw attention to the fact that physical challenges are not the only ones players must overcome to be great.
Of Charles’ 1,745 yards from scrimmage coming off his torn ACL in 2012, 628 came in the five games after his teammate Jovan Belcher murdered his wife’s first cousin, Kasandra Perkins, and then turned the gun on himself. Charles’ wife introduced Belcher to Perkins, and Charles had known her since the eighth grade, according to Vahe Gregorian of The Kansas City Star.
“(Perkins) was a sister to me, and she’s like a sister to my wife, so it’s hard,” Charles told Gregorian last year. “At the same time, my wife still is getting through those tough days. And thinking about her, she cries still.”
Charles’ numbers hold up under scrutiny without any help, but the terribly sad situation does highlight just how strong he is mentally in addition to his physical talent. Many men would have been distracted or cracked under similar circumstances, but not Charles.
Over the last four seasons, Charles leads all running backs with at least 500 carries with 6.11 yards per touch. That’s a half a yard more than the running back in second place—Buffalo Bills running back C.J. Spiller. McCoy is fourth and Peterson sixth.
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Charles is eighth in total touchdowns as a percentage of his touches over the last four seasons, but touchdowns are the product of opportunity to some extent. Last year, Charles had five more total touchdowns than any other running back with 19. That’s eight more than McCoy and nine more than Peterson.
What makes Charles so dangerous is the fact that he is so good in both the running and the passing games. Charles is the only player with at least 400 carries from 2010-2014 to average over 5.0 yards per carry and 9.0 yards per reception.
Being great in the passing game is key in the NFL today because it has become a passing league. For as good as he is at running the ball, Peterson has never caught more than 43 passes in a season and Charles had 70 last year alone. McCoy has consistently produced in the passing game, but he hasn’t been as productive with those touches as Charles over the past four seasons.
Despite missing 14 games in 2011, Charles also leads all running backs in receiving touchdowns over the last four years. Charles ranks sixth in yards per reception and receiving yardage. Only four running backs have averaged more receiving yards per game than Charles since 2010. Charles is keeping up with the running backs that are receiving specialists, and he’s great in the running game.
When you look at Charles’ huge numbers over a period longer than one year, you start to appreciate just how good he is. Charles has never led the league in rushing yardage, but that’s all that’s really missing from his resume. That may never happen for Charles because of the type of running back he is, but that’s not such a bad thing.
Charles and Ray Rice are the only active players with two seasons with at least 1,900 yards from scrimmage, and only 14 players in history have that many before they turned 28. Charles is in the company of Marcus Allen and Walter Payton, among others.
Although these stats are revealing, they still don’t tell the whole story. Stats tell us what happened, but not why or how beyond generic play descriptions.
As the statistics show, Charles can dominate in both the running and the passing game. Charles isn’t your classic between-the-tackles pounder, but he can get to the edge and has great vision to find cutback lanes.
Charles can also dominate two different ways in the passing game. One way Charles produces is in the screen game. This is the classic way to get running backs the ball out of the backfield, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a running back that is more productive on screens than Charles.
The Chiefs ran screen after screen after screen against the Oakland Raiders last year, and Charles piled up 195 receiving yards on just eight catches. Oakland’s defense was terrible in 2013, but they had been one of the best at slowing down Charles in recent years.
Trying to slow down Charles in the passing game is tough because he has a natural cushion coming out of the backfield and defenders have to give him even more because of his speed. When defenders start cheating, Charles will sprint down the sideline looking to make a big play. Charles did this against the Raiders, but they were hardly the only team he torched in this way.
There aren’t many running backs who can catch passes 10 or more yards down the field, but Charles is one of them. Charles can do things in the passing game only receiving specialist backs can do, which makes him a nightmare for opposing defenses due to his flexibility.
When he’s running the ball, Charles has the kind of vision to make him very dangerous. Combined with his ability to change directions and his speed, Charles is extremely dangerous once he is past the line of scrimmage. The only way defenses can really slow him down is to bottle him up in the backfield.
If a team doesn’t corral him early in the play, Charles is usually going for a big gain. Those big plays are why he is the only running back from 24-27 to eclipse 4,000 rushing yards on fewer than 800 carries.
From age 24-27, only Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown and Charles have averaged more than 5.0 yards per carry, 9.0 yards per reception and rushed for more than 4,000 yards. Anytime you are in the company of Jim Brown, and only Jim Brown, chances are you are good at running the football.
Despite being some 1,220 yards from scrimmage behind Brown due to missing nearly an entire year, Charles has actually averaged more yards per touch. From age 24-27, Charles’ 6.11 yards per touch is the most in NFL history for backs with at least 700 carries.
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Charles is in elite company when it comes to his work over the last four years and bests Peterson and McCoy easily in most categories over that period. He’s had two amazing seasons; he’s just been overshadowed in those years by another running back.
Given his ability, the Chiefs' reliance on him and his age, Charles still had a chance to break through the glass ceiling to be mentioned casually as the best running back in the NFL. In reality, he already should be.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics via pro-football-reference.com.