How does one make an introduction short and sweet? You're asking the wrong guy. But I'm gonna give it a shot anyways...
Running back is a position that still gets talked about here more than a little. The Chiefs currently have Jamaal Charles, Peyton Hillis, and Dexter McCluster as their presumable 3-back combo. Many, like me, are very happy with this group. Others are interested in getting a RB sooner rather than later.
The justification I hear most often for this is that Dex can't play RB in the traditional sense, that he's more of a "gadget player" without a true position. Less often is the argument that he's just not that good a player and was a drastic reach in the 2nd. I'm in the camp that argues that Dex is a solid contributor, and one that we want to keep at RB to maximize his production.
But who gives a crap about my OPINION? Not even me, honestly. What do stats say? What does gametape say? Time to find out...
NOTE- For those who don't know, this will be a detailed breakdown of Dex in 2011 based on basic stats, ProFootballFocus stats (h/t Steve), and (most importantly) reviewing the game tape. I watched pretty much every snap Dex took this year for this one, and like always, this isn't a "short" read. Hardcore fans only.Basic Stats
Let's do this the short way, ok? I think we can all agree that stats, especially basic stats, don't tell us much about a player. So I will defy all my instincts and keep this part short (although to be fair, I suppose I could've just eliminated those last two sentences. And that last one. And that one. OK, let's just move on before I'm caught in a time vortex or something).
Rushing stats: 113 carries, 510 yards (4.5 YPC). 1 TD, 2 fumbles
Receiving stats: 46 catches, 328 yards (7.1 YP Catch), 1 TD.
What do we learn from these stats? Well, I think we've learned one thing right out of the gate: those who say Dex didn't produce were wrong. He had 844 yards of total offense from scrimmage. Compare that to, say, Darren Sproles in his SD years and he stacks up very nicely. Throw in that our offense had a TOTAL of not-quite-5000 yards this seasn and we see that Dex had 17% of our offensive production. That's more than anyone but Dwayne Bowe.
So now that we've put to rest the idea that Dex isn't capable of major contribution, let's look at PFF stats and see what we find.
First off, remember that when looking to PFF "grades" that this is NOT an infallible system. It's at least somewhat subjective. Now that that's out of the way, let's talk about Dex's grades. He's rated at 8.5 Overall among RBs, 24th in the NFL. He rates 34th as a receiver among backs (more on that soon), 34th as a runner, and (are you ready to have your mind blown?) 7th as a blocker.
Now I don't know about you, but it was the "blocker" rating that threw me. I didn't expect that, as it's WIDELY held here (and everywhere) that Dex is a liability when protecting the QB. So let's put that in our pocket for now until it's time to break down film. But know that PFF rates Dex as a top 10 blocker. Crazy world.
An interesting fact about Dex: he averaged 7.1 yards per reception, and 6.7 YAC per reception! What does this tell us? It tells us that our widely held fears about Dex's TERRIBLE misuse early on in the season, as well as the playcalling in general, were entirely justified. Of Dex's 334 yards receiving, 313 of them were earned by him after the catch. There could not be a clearer indication that Dex was constantly asked to make something out of nothing.
Additionally, that stat tells me that if Dex were to get the ball with better playcalling and execution, his yards per catch would likely shoot up. Hopefully, we'll better utilize the talents of a guy who can turn nothing into something this year.
Another interesting thing to note is that Dex caught 79.7% of the passes thrown his way. That's an excellent percentage, especially considering who he had throwing him the ball this season. Of course, this could be skewed by the fact that (as shown above) he was catching passes thrown by a guy a few yards away from him.
So far, we see that Dex by and large made his own yards when catching the ball, that he caught most of what came his way, and that he's (apparently) a good blocker. But what about actually, you know, running the ball? You know, the thing that makes most of us hesitate about using him consistently in our rotation? CAN he be part of a successful RB group?
PFF Stats- Rushing
First things first: Dex averaged 2.1 Yards After Contact when running the ball. Without delving into too many comparative statistics, that's bad. Not Thomas Jones bad (he was at 1.4, worst in the league), but bad. No surprise, he's a little dude.
In other areas, though, Dex's PFF stats were largely encouraging. He had 13 "Missed Tackles" (basically, just what it sounds like. Tackles broken or avoided) in 113 attempts. So he's got a 11.5% rating for making guys miss when he runs the ball. While it doesn't place him in quite elite company in the league (MJD is at 16%, for example), it DOES put him comfortably above many very good backs (like Ray Rice, Arian Foster, and Frank Gore to name a few).
So this tells us that despite not being a guy who can get a lot of yards after contact, Dex makes enough guys MISS to still give defenses problems.
Now for the real issue with Dex: can he run between the tackles? The consensus here on AP is "absolutely not" from everything I've read. It's treated as a given that Dex has to get the ball on sweeps or something else to the edge or he is ineffective. So what does PFF say on that subject? I'm glad you asked!
PFF is kind enough to provide a breakdown of runs the RB made and what "gaps" they were attempting to run through. There are 7 different categories: Left End (outside of LT), LT, LG, ML (left of C), MR (right of C), RG, RT, and RE (outside of RT). So, imagine our line and the gaps Dex would've been asked to run through below, and I'll provide the YPC behind each "gap"
LE LT LG ML MR RG RT RE
5.1 7.2 6.8 4.3 2.4 2.3 2.9 4.5
Most concerning is that staggeringly bad numbers from MR to RT. Apparently, we all need to re-think the idea that Asamoah is a good run blocker. Now, in his defense, our other backs had more success running behind him. But to a man, every single RB we marched out there had problems running behind Barry Richardson. He simply was not the road grater we sometimes pretended he was in the running game.
However... You see that Dex averaged 6.8 YPC running between the Albert and Lilja, and 4.3 YPC when running between Lilja and Weigmann. Those who believe that Dex is incapable of running anywhere but the edges are likely blown away by this. Frankly, I was too, and I'm about as hardcore a Dex defender as you'll find on this site.
Long story short... Dex CAN run successfully between the tackles. He did it last year with a line that really, really struggled when run blocking (other than Albert), so there's no reason to believe he'll be anything but better with the HUGE upgrade we got at RT (I mean seriously... HUGE. Especially after looking at how crappy our backs did running behind B-Rich. Everyone KNEW he was bad at pass blocking, but I though he was at least OK at run blocking. I was wrong).
Now we've finished with base stats and PFF stats. Onto the most important aspect of this... game tape. Specifically, I'm going to look for a few things: is Dex a good blocker, can he run between the tackles, how was he affected by the way he was used, and what "worked" with him as a RB? The real question I'm attempting to answer is simple: is Dex good enough at RB to where we want him to get at least 10-12 touches per game?
This is where the rubber meets the road. I don't care HOW in depth PFF is, or how nerdy we can get using stats and ratios and percentages and whatever else. For me, it mostly comes down to how the guy looks when reviewing the tape. So how does Dex do regarding the issues above? Let's see...
Dex as a Blocker- The first play I watched Dex block, he went low into a blitzing LB and took out his legs. Nice block! The very next play, Dex was blocking again, but this time there were no blitzing LBs. So Dex sat back and waited for a tick, looking at the linemen. He then went to Albert, who has getting pushed back farther than any of the other OL, and applied a technique I'd never seen used... He pushed on ALBERT'S back! He placed his hands squarely on Albert's back and shoved with everything he had. With the additional weight behind him, Albert's backward walk was halted and Cassel got the ball away cleanly (maybe this is a common tactic used by RB's. I just know don't remember ever seeing it before).
Those two plays turned out to be a GREAT summary of why PFF gives Dex good grades as a blocker. He's extremely smart about his blocking. Those two techniques are the ones I saw him use the vast majority of the time he was blocking. Because of his quickness, he's almost always able to get low on a defender and hit him hard enough to slow him down. And the 2nd technique works well when OL are being pushed backward. It seems that even as light as he is, Dex is able to halt the backward movement of an OL being bullrushed.
When not using either of these techniques, Dex is an average blocker. He uses excellent technique and is not at all afraid to sacrifice his body to slow down a defender. The problem is, of course, that that's all he can really do: slow people down. Unless he takes out the legs of a defender, he's not going to stop him. So he needs to be put in a position to where he has time to see a blitzer coming in order to get low on him. Otherwise he gets brushed off. When a defender has an OL beat (say, to the outside) and Dex comes in to help, he'll chuck his body in there and do what he can. But he's just too small to do more than slow a DL down for a second.
All in all, I walked away from the tape with a good understanding of why Dex rates highly as a blocker: unlike many RB's, he puts absolute 100% effort into every block. He kind of has to in order to do anything. You know how every group of friends has that one guy who weighs about a buck forty soaking wet, but when provoked he fights like a demon on PCP and is willing to crack someone over the head with a 2x4 rather than lose? Dex is the Chiefs version of that guy when it comes to blocking. He doesn't have the size or strength to really match up with the guys he's battling, but he makes up for it with CRAZY effort and a willingness to do whatever it takes. BIG thumbs up on this part of his game.
Dex as a Receiver- First and foremost, let me say something to Dex: dude, I'm REALLY sorry how many plays you got hung out to dry early in the season. Seriously, on behalf of the Chiefs and whoever kept calling your number on screens and wheel routes despite teams just HOVERING around you with 2 or 3 defenders... I'm sorry.
Watching the first few games of the year it became apparent that without JC we were a tad screwed at playmaker (at least, from the RB position). So it seemed like Haley overcompensated for a weakness by trying to MAKE it work with Dex. The problem is, when teams are expecting a screen, it just doesn't work. I'd say 80% of the passes that came Dex's way early in the season he had absolutely no chance to do anything after he caught the ball. Ugh.
Another thing... of the passes that Dex didn't haul in (remember, he caught about 80% of what was thrown his way), most of them were intentional throwaways. Don't know how much this means, but it's worth noting that if you don't include passes thrown at his feet (or to Eric Weddle. Ugh, I hated re-watching that play... let's move on) Dex caught 90+ percent of the passes thrown his way.
I feel as though Dex as a receiver out the backfield this year was kind of like watching the movie Immortals. I saw some stuff I liked, and the big time potential was definitely there... and yet, something was lacking. Honestly, I think the injuries to Jamaal Charles, Tony Moeaki, and Jonathan Baldwin really messed with Dex's ability to produce. Defenses were absolutely KEYING on him when he'd come out of the backfield. Throw in the fact that roughly a quarter of the screens ran to him were disgustingly obvious from the get-go and you found a guy in a no-win situation all too often.
However, his ability to make something from nothing is pretty impressive. He's exceptional at making the first defender miss when he gets the ball in space. That explains the fact that virtually all his yards were YAC. Personally, I'm excited to see what Dex can do when he's NOT keyed on by opposing defenses and the playcalling isn't quite so predictable.
One thing that the coaches didn't seem to take advantage of much was how much attention Dex gets when he comes out of the backfield. Teams were constantly shading guys in the direction Dex went. Now, this could be due to the fact that we just didn't have a ton of playmakers out there. or it could be due to the fact that our QB situation was... iffy (was that a kind enough word?).
There were a few changes made in the way Dex was used once Crennel took over. First, I saw him lined up in the slot (and actually thrown to) a couple of times. Honestly, he looks IMPOSSIBLY quick when running routes in the middle of the field, and I imagine we could see more of this next year.
Second, other than the usual wheel routes and screens, Dex came out of the backfield across the middle to catch a few passes, something I don't remember seeing even once with Todd as HC. Again, this was a good wrinkle, and it was pretty effective. It seemed as though the defenses weren't expecting Dex to be in the middle of the field. And why would they? He hadn't been there all year (I'm getting angry again... our playcalling this year may go down as the worst I've ever seen as a fan)!
Hopefully we see a few more changes made this next year, and Daboll can figure out a way to use Dex in the passing game that isn't predictable, and takes advantage of his unique skills. With other players demanding opposing defenses' attention, it wouldn't surprise me one bit if Dex caught 60 passes for 800 yards this next year.
Dex as a Runner-
Dex is a good runner. I say this without hesitation. His strengths and weaknesses upon watching him aren't altogether surprising. A few things...
It's almost impossible throughout the first half of the season to figure out what Dex can do when taking handoffs that aren't draws or some kind of cutesy trick play. Haley just did not run normal plays for Dex. They only started showing up about Week 8. And even then they were the exception, not the rule. I can say one thing though... Running draws and trick plays does when defenses are EXPECTING those types of plays does not work. Even a little.
After RAC took over, we again saw a change in how Dex was used. First, toss sweeps were used several times each game, after having not made much of an appearance all year. These plays met with mixed success. Another change was an uptick in "normal" running plays. A larger percentage of Dex's carries over the final three games consisted of standard handoffs and stretch plays. These also had mixed success. However, the COMBINATION of sweeps, draws, stretches, and standard handoffs were more successful as a whole than "draws, draws, and more draws" playbook we'd used for Dex until then.
Dex as a runner is interesting to see. Bad news first. If a defender gets an arm around him, he's done for. He lacks JC's vision and fluidity. And of course, there's always the risk of a dude his size getting CRUSHED. Another problem is more of a coaching one: it's tough to tell what he can do as a RB because coaches are trying so hard to use him "creatively." There's not a ton of tape of him running standard plays, so it's tough to say if he can do it.
Based on that limited number of times, though, I'd say that Dex IS capable of being used in a more "standard" fashion. While he'll never be a "move the pile" RB, he runs with a toughness that belies his size and his burst through any hole the OL can make is just as fast as JC's. If there's an opening (whether that opening is to the outside or between the C and LG) Dex gets through it faster than most backs. That ability allows him to gain positive yardage very quickly.
Besides acceleration, Dex has one elite ability: cutting. His ability to cut, whether to go through a hole in the line or to avoid a defender, is absolutely unmatched. Even JC can't make cuts as quickly as Dex can. It's his bread and butter, and when he's in space he nearly always makes the first defender miss to get positive yardage (or at least makes the first defender hit him at such an angle as to allow him to dive for an extra couple of yards).
The key with Dex, whether it's on draws or regular running plays, is blocking (cue 50 of you saying "DUH!"). Yes, blocking is a big deal for any RB, but with Dex it becomes imperative. He's unusual in that with GOOD blocking he can get you 3-4 more yards than the average RB due to his exceptional acceleration. The flip side of this is that with BAD blocking he's more liable than most RB's to lose yardage because he's so easy to bring down once a defensive player gets ahold of him
So snapshot version of Dex, comparing him to JC to make things easy: Just as good acceleration. Actually a superior cutter. Doesn't have as good of vision or patience, though. Also, isn't as fluid going through holes and is more easily knocked off balance (JC just seems to glide out there, while Dex is actually running like the rest of us mortals). Finally, not nearly as good at shrugging off contact, although he's just as good at AVOIDING contact.
Dex is a playmaker who produced decent stats in a terrible situation. Game tape backs this up: the dude was horribly misused and put in a position to fail constantly. Despite that, he produced. Personally, I want Dex getting the ball 12 times a game.
As far as durability goes, allow me to make one final point. I saw Dex get hit HARD more than a few times. And every time, he bounced back up instantly. He actually gets nicked up less often than JC does. Dude's tough as nails and can handle getting the rock consistently.
More than ever, I say our RB rotation is set for this year, and any move we make that takes carries and catches from Dex is a bad one. Get him the ball 12 times a game with some decent playcalling, and he'll be getting us at least a thousand yards from scrimmage, and likely more.
Oh, and one more thing...