Could Spencer Ware Be a Legitimate Lead Back in the NFL?

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystSeptember 16, 2016

Aug 27, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Kansas City Chiefs running back Spencer Ware (32) celebrates after his team scored against the Chicago Bears during the first half of the preseason game at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

There's a tendency to either tap or slam imaginary brakes after Week 1 of the NFL season. If the Kansas City Chiefs are doing that in their assessment of running back Spencer Ware, they should stop.

He's shown the potential to be more than just an injury replacement and a seat-warmer as Jamaal Charles goes through the final stages of his ACL-tear recovery. Ware can be a genuine workhorse running back in the NFL.

You know, the kind of running back who's consistently getting the larger slice of the carry pie regardless of how much name value others on the depth chart carry. And if he maintains anything even close to his current play over Week 1 and the end of 2015, Ware is also the kind of running back who can make a front office re-evaluate long-term team-building options.

He's a guy who can force you to look at his contract, and then at the one Charles signed. He'll make you look at his knees, too, and compare them to the shredded limbs Charles is walking around on after tearing both his left and right ACLs.

When it's all factored in to the jumbled Rubik's cube that is short- and long-term NFL franchise building, we land on an obvious question: Is Ware becoming the best option for the Chiefs at running back both now and in the future?

Chiefs head coach Andy Reid might have to ponder that question sometime in the near future. For now, he's a Ware pom-pom waver, just like every Chiefs fan.

BJ Kissel @ChiefsReporter

"He has a knack for making plays when you need them." ~ Reid on Spencer Ware.

Your initial reaction after rolling around the possibility of Ware taking over in the Chiefs backfield is probably to munch on a few member berries, and recall a time when Charles was one of the NFL's most dynamic running backs.

Of course, you don't have to flip back far or go to the dark inner caves of your memory for those days of glory. Charles suffered his second ACL tear in 2015, but he posted 1,324 yards from scrimmage in 2014.

But that was a significant tumble down from his 1,980 total yards and 19 touchdowns in 2013. Now, history, time and the ailing body of a soon-to-be 30-year-old (in late December) aren't on his side, and those are three mighty foes.

Enter Ware, then, who is five years younger (he'll turn 25 in November) and has logged 99 career touches to Charles' 1,603. Charles hasn't just lapped Ware in the touch-count category that's the true measure of a running back's age. He's completed the 24-hour Le Mans race before Ware even gets off the start/finish line.

That's why as Ware keeps slashing, cutting and being a multidimensional weapon, considering a future with him as the foundational piece in Kansas City's backfield is more than fair. It's expected, and it would reflect the sort of front-office foresight every annual playoff-contender needs.

No one should be starting to carve the tombstone for Charles' career just yet, though. He still has productive years left, even at his age on wonky knees.

But already, the notion of Ware earning at least a time share once Charles returns is starting to feel like a foregone conclusion. And as the year goes on, Charles playing elsewhere in 2017 could be greeted with the same inevitability.

We'll get to Ware's brilliance both in Week 1 to start 2016 and the final games of 2015 in just a minute. First, it's important to add another piece of off-field context to the discussion and outline his dramatically lower price tag.

Not only is Ware five years younger and has faced a lower volume of touches, but he also costs the equivalent of your daily morning coffee in NFL salary-cap terms. Ware is being paid a mere $600,000 in 2016 during the first season of a three-year contract signed in late March. Meanwhile, Charles is in the penultimate season of his current four-year contract and will be paid $2.75 million in 2016.

That dollar figure rises to $3.75 million in 2017 for Charles, and Ware's pay jumps up only a tick to $700,000. So the clock on Charles' career with the Chiefs is set to tick loudly because of both his health and the ever-present motivation to free up precious salary-cap space.

Then once we turn our attention to Ware's performance, the footsteps behind Charles get louder. As NFL Network's Kay Adams noted, what Ware accomplished as a pass-catcher in Week 1 put him in a select group:

Kay Adams @heykayadams

Spencer Ware had 129 receiving yds today. Only 4 RBs had 100-yard receiving games last year. Jamaal Charles has 2 such games in his career.

Ware added 70 rushing yards, raising his total production from scrimmage to 199 yards during a comeback win over the San Diego Chargers. He averaged an incredible 11.1 yards per touch and scored his eighth touchdown over only his last 106 touches including the playoffs.

Flipping back to 2015 is a quick reminder that what we're seeing is no one-week blip from Ware. He isn't the latest version of Jonas Gray, who rushed for 201 yards and four touchdowns for the New England Patriots in Week 11 of 2014 then almost immediately faded from our lives again.

Ware is doing the opposite. He's adding to his astounding effectiveness on a minimal workload compared to his peers.

An easy way to gain respect for what Ware did in 2015 is to compare his production in key areas to other running backs on the same level. For example, let's look at his regular-season rushing touchdowns.

Ware scored six times on the ground in 2015. That tied him with nine other running backs. Let's see if you notice something when his name is put alongside a few of those other six-touchdown backs.

Ware compared to other RBs with six TDs in 2015
Running backTouchdownsCarries
Spencer Ware672
Doug Martin6288
Frank Gore6260
Jonathan Stewart6242
DeMarco Murray6193
Latavius Murray6266
Mark Ingram6166
Source: NFL.com

All of the six running backs listed there matched Ware's touchdown total while receiving at least 90 more carries, with some far above that plateau. This shows Ware shined despite a limited platform, and established himself as someone worthy of a longer look.

Now, you may be thinking that touchdowns alone aren't the best gauge of individual running back performance. To some extent, touchdowns are a team-oriented measuring stick, as with the exception of scattered long runs into the end zone, running backs rely on the offense they're working with to put them in a good scoring position.

So let's do a similar exercise, then. This time we'll look at 15-plus-yard runs in 2015, which is the ideal metric to shown both a running back's open-field burst and his ability to create a missed tackle or two. Often even the most well-blocked long runs still need both of those elements from the running back.

Ware recorded six runs for 15-plus yards in 2015, which tied him with the Chargers' Melvin Gordon, the Arizona Cardinals' David Johnson, the Cincinnati Bengals' Giovani Bernard and former Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte, among others.

Please once again note the cavernous gap in carries between Ware and everyone else.

Ware compared to RBs in 2015 with the same +15 yard runs
Running back+15 yard runsCarries
Spencer Ware672
Melvin Gordon6184
David Johnson6123
Giovani Bernard6154
Matt Forte6218
Source: Pro Football Focus

Ware does more than just collect yardage in chunks. He does it consistently, and as Reid quite correctly noted, the sixth-round pick in 2013 is always a lurking big-play threat.

His game-breaking ability was on display throughout the Chiefs' Week 1 win. Ware finished the game with 18 total touches, and eight resulted in gains of 10-plus yards. That included receptions for 45, 28 and 20 yards.

He's not a walking and juking mirage. Sure, the sample size he's produced is still small. But that's not his fault, as Ware has done a lot with so little.

He has now logged 342 yards from scrimmage over his last three games dating back to 2015 and including the playoffs. And he's done that at a pace of 6.8 yards per touch. Even more impressively, Ware also posted 210 rushing yards over a two-game stretch against the Chargers and Buffalo Bills in 2015.

Charles isn't done yet. The four-time Pro Bowler will return soon enough, and at even 80 percent of his former self he'll still be a migraine-inducing presence for defenses. He's a multifaceted talent who can play on all downs and contribute as both a pass-catcher and runner.

But making him shoulder the heavy burden of a full-time workload immediately isn't wise. Ware will keep getting a decent chunk of touches as Charles is eased back into a larger role. He's given the Chiefs that luxury.

He's also given them no choice with his sudden surge. No coach who examines both Charles' medical records and his replacement's game film could justify sitting Ware down and returning him solely to backup duty.

Keeping Ware active and involved in 2016 will likely be the easy decision. Deciding what to do with Charles beyond that is when the furrowed brows and sleepless nights begin.


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