FanPost

The Ultimate Franchise Running Back

Scott Boehm

From the FanPosts. Excellent post. -Joel

Here’s why I’d start Jamaal Charles at running back if I were building a team from scratch.

The idea for this post originated months ago with a mistaken assumption on my part. Specifically, I wrote in a comment thread that Frank Gore was obviously a better short yardage runner than Jamaal Charles. MNChiefsFan challenged me to back up my statement, and when I did the research, I found that Charles is far and away the better running back with fewer than 2 yards to go. In fact, Charles compared favorably to any other big time running backs that I examined at the time. Who knew?

When I realized that Charles' strengths included more than yards-per-carry efficiency and a dangerous ability to take it to the house, I decided to figure out where JC fits in the ranks of current NFL running backs. The off-season "Top X" lists further inspired me, especially b/c Pro Football Focus somehow found 7 running backs who turned in better seasons last year than Jamaal Charles. I couldn't buy it, even after reading their follow-up post that tried to justify their choices.

Everything that follows is an attempt to answer a simple question: "if I were building a team from scratch, which running back would I most want on my roster?" The answer is, of course, Jamaal Charles. He didn't actually emerge as the top-rated RB in this study, but for my money JC offers the best combination of youth, experience, durability, situational effectiveness, and bulk production. I think, too, that you might be surprised by how some of the other top backs fared in this study.

Methodology:

I used the ‘Player Season Finder' at Pro Football Reference (PFR) to identify the most productive "feature backs" in the league today. My criteria were as follows:

  • For players active in 2009, I required the RB to have at least 400 carries and 40 receptions.
  • For 2010 players, I chose C.J. Spiller and Ryan Mathews as the only credible "feature backs" of that class.
  • For 2011 players, I likewise chose only DeMarco Murray to add to my list. (with apologies to Stevan Ridley. I should have included him here. My bad.)
  • In 2012, we saw three RBs join the cadre of top flight runners: Alfred Morris, Doug Martin, and Trent Richardson.

These queries yielded 43 names, and I ranked them from 1 to 43 in each of 9 areas under study (where the guy with the best numbers got a ‘1'). I derived my final ranking by taking the average of the 9 scores. This means I weighted every category equally, which is an entirely debatable proposition, but it was all my poor mind could handle.

I collected the data from three broad perspectives:

  • Bulk production - These metrics include carries, receptions, yards, touchdowns, etc., and serve as a basic expression of overall productivity.
  • Situational effectiveness - These metrics report how well the player performed in common down-and-distance situations: ‘goal line success', ‘red zone success', ‘short yardage success', and ‘first-and-10 efficacy'.
  • Comparative production - These metrics add utilization information to convey a rate of productivity: ‘yards per carry', ‘yards per catch', ‘total yards per game' (excluding kick returns), ‘touchdowns per game', and ‘reception rate'. They let us compare the efficiency of the RBs under scrutiny.

I'm only going to write about the last two data sets, because the raw metrics don't tell us anything more than what is obvious - Adrian Peterson is a stud, and Doug Martin might just be his under-stud-y (get it?). The charts should have a minimum of explanation and commentary b/c I really want to read the thoughts, arguments, and conclusions that the rest of AP comes up with. You guys and gals never disappoint in that regard.

The Running Backs

I wanted to identify the ideal ‘feature back' for years 2013 and beyond, so I didn't include data for retired or clearly past their prime RBs (e.g., LaDainian Tomlinson, Michael Turner, etc.). I also ruled out RBs who are not now and will likely never again be used in a feature role, e.g., Michael Bush, Marion Barber, etc. Finally, I ended up throwing out Trent Richardson as well b/c his 2012 productivity just wasn't up to the standards set by the rest of the group. This process left me 21 names, shown here with some interesting data about availability and utilization.

There's an important fact to bear in mind as you read these charts: even though I show rankings from 1-21, I still used the larger pool of data to derive my overall average. I did so because I believe that it better separates the players to consider where they rank among the more complete group of their peers. A pair of RBs might rank 5-6 in the abbreviated list when they rank 11 and 18 in the full group - a much larger distinction than might otherwise be indicated.

This first chart is the "money shot", the one that summarizes my findings.

Overall Rank

Player name

Rookie year

Games Played*

Availability

Utilization

CP Rank

SE Rank

1

Arian Foster

2009

51

79.69%

36.77%

2

4

2

Adrian Peterson

2007

59

92.19%

35.78%

1

7

3

Jamaal Charles

2008

49

76.56%

37.37%

7

2

4

Ahmad Bradshaw

2007

57

89.06%

27.57%

9

1

5

LeSean McCoy

2009

58

90.63%

29.83%

5

5

6

Alfred Morris

2012

64

100.00%

35.31%

12

3

7

Ray Rice

2008

64

100.00%

36.01%

3

16

8

DeMarco Murray

2011

23

71.88%

27.07%

16

6

9

Maurice Jones-Drew

2006

52

81.25%

37.83%

6

12

10

Pierre Thomas

2007

51

79.69%

18.49%

13

9

11

Reggie Bush

2006

53

82.81%

22.48%

21

8

12

Doug Martin

2012

16

100.00%

38.59%

4

18

13

Ryan Mathews

2010

38

79.17%

28.96%

18

11

14

Rashard Mendenhall

2008

53

82.81%

28.33%

19

10

15

Frank Gore

2005

57

89.06%

34.62%

10

15

16

C.J. Spiller

2010

46

95.83%

18.81%

14

13

17

Marshawn Lynch

2007

60

93.75%

27.73%

20

14

18

Chris Johnson

2008

64

100.00%

38.25%

8

20

19

Darren McFadden

2009

44

68.75%

30.28%

15

17

20

Jonathan Stewart

2008

55

85.94%

22.21%

17

19

21

Matt Forte

2008

59

92.19%

34.18%

11

21

Notes:

Games Played is the number of games played over the sample period (as opposed to career games played).
Availability
is the proportion of games in which the RB played in the period under study. For Jamaal Charles this is 49 of a possible 64 games (I didn't include the Detroit game where he got injured on the second play from scrimmage).
Utilization is the proportion of offensive plays in which the RB tallied a running attempt or was a targeted receiver (even if the pass is incomplete, the offense still used the player in that instance).
CP Rank shows how a player ranked in the "comparative production" part of the study.
SE Rank shows how a player ranked in "situational effectiveness".

Jamaal Charles ranks fourth in utilization at 37.37%. This would seem to refute the claim, one that I still read from time to time, that Charles has not been used enough in the Chiefs' offense. His availability has been 76.56%, or 19th of 21 players. To me, this needn't reflect poorly on Charles. All of his time missed came in 2011 as a result of his ACL injury, and he hasn't missed any games due to nagging injuries. In this respect, JC is quite durable, especially considering his workload.

Comparative Production Metrics

These are the metrics that allow us to compare the RBs' play-to-play and game-to-game productivity.

Avg Rank

Player Name

Yds / Att

Rank

TDs / Game

Rank

Total Yds / Game

Rank

Recep'n
Rate

Rank

Yds / Catch

Rank

1

Adrian Peterson

4.99

3

0.97

2

116.6

4

75.69%

7

7.68

15

2

Arian Foster

4.48

19

0.98

1

118.6

2

74.89%

10

8.59

7

3

Ray Rice

4.57

12

0.61

8

117.3

3

74.93%

9

7

21

4

Doug Martin

4.56

15

0.75

4

120.4

1

70.00%

19

7.22

18

5

LeSean McCoy

4.63

11

0.66

6

94.1

11

78.29%

4

9.63

1

6

Maurice Jones-Drew

4.55

16

0.69

5

113.2

5

73.10%

13

7.48

16

7

Jamaal Charles

5.83

1

0.47

13

105.9

7

72.00%

16

8.08

13

8

Chris Johnson

4.67

10

0.59

9

110.2

6

73.05%

14

7.99

14

9

Ahmad Bradshaw

4.44

20

0.56

11

82.8

15

76.69%

5

7.11

20

10

Frank Gore

4.52

17

0.61

7

98.4

10

66.82%

21

9.02

5

11

Matt Forte

4.32

24

0.43

15

90.9

12

73.38%

12

9.02

4

12

Alfred Morris

4.81

5

0.81

3

105.6

8

68.75%

20

8.78

6

13

Pierre Thomas

4.71

9

0.35

19

66.2

20

84.41%

1

8.35

9

14

C.J. Spiller

5.38

2

0.33

20

64.6

21

75.71%

6

8.17

12

15

Darren McFadden

4.32

25

0.55

12

78.6

16

70.49%

18

9.06

3

16

DeMarco Murray

4.80

6

0.26

21

86.5

14

79.22%

2

7.25

17

17

Jonathan Stewart

4.73

8

0.38

17

69.3

19

72.58%

15

8.43

8

18

Ryan Mathews

4.39

22

0.37

18

87.6

13

78.72%

3

8.27

10

19

Rashard Mendenhall

4.13

31

0.58

10

78.1

17

71.15%

17

9.17

2

20

Marshawn Lynch

4.32

26

0.39

16

100.6

9

75.37%

8

7.17

19

21

Reggie Bush

4.76

7

0.45

14

70.6

18

74.30%

11

8.26

11

Jamaal Charles is 7th on this list. His production in the passing game pulls him down, and he hasn’t scored a lot of touchdowns. I can’t wait to see whether the new coach and QB will help his standing here.

Situational Effectiveness

This is where Jamaal’s skills really shine.

First Down and Ten Yards To Go

On average, just over half of the carries for a first-team running back occur on first-and-10. Success in this situation, which I have defined as a gain of 4 yards or more, allows the team to open up the playbook on 2d and 3d downs, leading to big play opportunities. On the other hand, failure (0 to negative yards) leads to 3rd and long all too often.

Player Name

Att

Y/A on 1st Down

1st Down SR

SR Rk

Fail %

Jamaal Charles

349

6.58

54.15%

1

15.19%

Pierre Thomas

250

4.95

53.20%

2

13.20%

DeMarco Murray

169

4.18

52.66%

3

18.34%

Alfred Morris

178

5.46

52.25%

4

16.85%

C.J. Spiller

227

5.16

49.78%

5

16.74%

LeSean McCoy

391

4.75

49.62%

6

19.95%

Reggie Bush

282

5.21

48.23%

7

16.67%

Maurice Jones-Drew

515

4.96

46.80%

8

13.40%

Doug Martin

180

4.81

46.67%

9

17.78%

Ahmad Bradshaw

408

4.84

46.57%

10

17.40%

Arian Foster

451

5.01

46.56%

11

15.52%

Marshawn Lynch

455

4.60

45.93%

12

14.95%

Ray Rice

571

4.80

45.88%

13

13.49%

Frank Gore

462

5.03

45.24%

14

15.58%

Rashard Mendenhall

463

4.69

44.49%

15

16.20%

Jonathan Stewart

289

4.44

43.94%

16

19.72%

Adrian Peterson

583

5.23

43.57%

17

22.47%

Matt Forte

473

4.06

42.71%

18

22.20%

Ryan Mathews

344

4.35

42.44%

19

15.41%

Chris Johnson

632

4.64

41.61%

20

22.94%

Darren McFadden

330

5.00

39.70%

21

17.58%

Jamaal Charles is not only tops in success rate here, but he also has the 5th lowest failure rate. Meanwhile, if you want to see how Marshawn Lynch, Ray Rice, Frank Gore, and Adrian Peterson rate – four reputedly stronger runners – you’ll have to peruse the bottom half of the list.

Short Yardage

Many football sites define a short yardage situation as a play where at most 3 yards are needed to get a 1st down. I set the limit at 2 yards for my study. Success, obviously, requires the RB to gain at least the 2 yards needed for a new set of downs.

Player Name

Attempts

% 1st Downs

Rank

Jamaal Charles

73

79.45%

1

Ryan Mathews

40

75.00%

2

DeMarco Murray

50

74.00%

3

LeSean McCoy

121

68.60%

4

Pierre Thomas

50

68.00%

5

Arian Foster

143

66.43%

6

Ahmad Bradshaw

113

66.37%

7

Ray Rice

102

64.71%

8

Adrian Peterson

143

63.64%

9

Rashard Mendenhall

93

62.37%

10

Reggie Bush

45

62.22%

11

Maurice Jones-Drew

142

61.97%

12

Jonathan Stewart

68

61.76%

13

Chris Johnson

108

61.11%

14

Frank Gore

110

60.91%

15

Alfred Morris

27

59.26%

16

Darren McFadden

48

58.33%

17

C.J. Spiller

38

57.89%

18

Marshawn Lynch

100

57.00%

19

Matt Forte

79

53.16%

20

Doug Martin

22

50.00%

21

With 2 yards to go, you know the defensive front 7 is geared up for a running play, especially when it involves the Chiefs. No matter how good the blocking may be, the only way JC achieves this stellar rate is to have the vision, quickness, balance and footwork to avoid defensive penetration into the backfield.

Red Zone Success Rate

I set a pretty high standard for success in the red zone (the area inside the opponent’s 20 yard line): the RB must either score a touchdown or gain a first down, and a touchdown is worth 1.5 times as much as a first down. The rankings below result from adding the two metrics, where SuccessRate = TD%*1.5 + 1stD%.

Player Name

Red Zone Attempts

TD%

1st Down %

Rank

Ahmad Bradshaw

146

19.86%

14.38%

1

Alfred Morris

52

21.15%

11.54%

2

Arian Foster

202

19.80%

12.87%

3

Adrian Peterson

197

22.34%

8.12%

4

LeSean McCoy

126

18.25%

13.49%

5

Maurice Jones-Drew

151

14.57%

15.89%

6

Rashard Mendenhall

130

21.54%

5.38%

7

Ryan Mathews

51

19.61%

5.88%

8

C.J. Spiller

32

18.75%

6.25%

9

Reggie Bush

62

19.35%

4.84%

10

Frank Gore

139

16.55%

8.63%

11

Marshawn Lynch

147

17.01%

7.48%

12

Jamaal Charles

59

13.56%

11.86%

13

Doug Martin

53

11.32%

15.09%

14

Pierre Thomas

76

15.79%

7.89%

15

DeMarco Murray

34

14.71%

8.82%

16

Ray Rice

167

16.17%

6.59%

17

Chris Johnson

125

16.00%

5.60%

18

Jonathan Stewart

85

14.12%

7.06%

19

Darren McFadden

79

11.39%

8.86%

20

Matt Forte

134

10.45%

7.46%

21

Jamaal’s numbers are just OK in this situation. Even so, if there is one area where JC hasn’t been used enough, it’s this one. His 59 carries represent only 17% of the red zone plays run by the Chiefs in games he played.

From Inside the Opponent’s 5 Yard Line

The only result worth considering is a touchdown, so this table is pretty simple.

Player Name

Attempts

TDs

TD %

Rank

Alfred Morris

12

7

58.33%

1

Ahmad Bradshaw

36

19

52.78%

2

Jamaal Charles

14

7

50.00%

3

Darren McFadden

17

8

47.06%

4

Reggie Bush

13

6

46.15%

5

Adrian Peterson

77

35

45.45%

6

Rashard Mendenhall

52

23

44.23%

7

Arian Foster

70

30

42.86%

8

Marshawn Lynch

42

18

42.86%

9

DeMarco Murray

10

4

40.00%

10

Ryan Mathews

10

4

40.00%

11

Frank Gore

47

18

38.30%

12

LeSean McCoy

41

15

36.59%

13

Pierre Thomas

20

7

35.00%

14

Ray Rice

45

15

33.33%

15

C.J. Spiller

6

2

33.33%

16

Chris Johnson

43

14

32.56%

17

Maurice Jones-Drew

48

14

29.17%

18

Doug Martin

18

5

27.78%

19

Jonathan Stewart

33

9

27.27%

20

Matt Forte

42

5

11.90%

21

Jamaal Charles comes through again! The sample size is quite small, which mostly reflects how few plays the Chiefs ran in this part of the field over the last 4 years. Will he maintain this success rate as the offense becomes more successful? I can only hope we get to find out.

Wrapping It Up

Congratulations and many thanks if you've read this far! Even though the post is a bit data-heavy, I hope it proves interesting enough to spur some fun discussions as we wait for training camp to start.

This research germinated a large number of sidebar notes, and I’ll post one or more follow-ups in a few days to delve into some them. Here’s a preview:

  1. Pro Football Focus can suck it. They have clearly abused their own advanced stats, and I’d like to illustrate just how far off the rails they have gone.
  2. Contrary to the current consensus, the running back is more important than ever to a well-functioning offense.
  3. Does Ahmad Bradshaw really belong at #4? And what about Marshawn Lynch at #17? I’d like to take a closer look at some of the more surprising results.
  4. Speaking of Marshawn Lynch, I suspect that playing alongside a running quarterback makes a running back more effective than he’d be in a more ‘traditional’ offense. Is it possible or fair to identify and adjust for this effect?
  5. We love football not because of the stats, but because of the real-time action. How about some GIFs to demonstrate what the numbers seem to tell us?

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of Arrowhead Pride's writers or editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of Arrowhead Pride writers or editors.

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