The Contrarian: Jamaal Charles Versus Adrian Peterson

PFF's advanced splits help demonstrate why Jamaal Charles is a better running back than Adrian Peterson and a better fantasy play.

| 4 years ago
Jamaal Charles

The Contrarian: Jamaal Charles Versus Adrian Peterson

Before the 2011 season, I wrote a Contrarian column explaining why you should consider Jamaal Charles over Adrian Peterson because of his greater ability to achieve yards before contact. Charles was immediately injured, so we didn’t get to see what he might have accomplished. Last season, I expanded on the topic, contending that gaining yards before contact, or Vision Yards, appeared to be a running back talent and not necessarily the result of offensive line play.

Now Adrian Peterson is coming off of one of the greatest single seasons in NFL history, and it’s time to raise the topic again. Is Jamaal Charles actually the better player? And should you consider selecting him before Purple Jesus?

We’ll again start the debate by focusing on the split where Charles has no equal. (But this time we won’t end it there.)


Vision Yards

Jamaal Charles Adrian Peterson
Vision Yds/Att Run Block Rk Vision Yds/Att Run Block Rk
2012 3.1 8 2.0 3
2011 2.3* 26 1.6 1
2010 2.3 6 1.5 29
2009 2.3 29 1.3 31
2008 2.2 20 1.6 8


The relative exploits of the two backs make a strong case that gaining Vision Yards is a skill. Jamaal Charles has averaged more VYA than Adrian Peterson in every season of his career, despite receiving significantly worse run blocking. It’s also interesting that in 2011, when Charles was out, the Chiefs graded out as a much worse blocking unit despite playing with very similar personnel. Food for thought.

If either of these players played in a better overall offense – say with the Saints or the Patriots – then we’d have to qualify our conclusions, but the Vikings and Chiefs have been routinely awful during this time period. Peterson did get to play with Brett Favre in 2009 and 2010. Matt Cassel led the Chiefs to a 10-6 record in 2010, but even that season he completed only 58% of his passes for 6.9 yards per attempt.

Neither team has been able to mount a passing attack, which means the defense keys entirely on the respective runners. Charles still has an uncanny ability to find the hole. If there is a small qualifier, it would be the slightly greater proportion of short yardage runs delegated to Peterson.

The gap between these two players boggles the mind. While Peterson’s legendary athleticism is trumpeted as being without par, Charles pretty clearly combines burst, agility, and vision in a far superior package.


Yards After Contact

Of course, these are two different runners. Charles excels before contact, Peterson after. The problem with that analysis is that Charles actually averaged more yards after contact than Peterson in both 2009 and 2010. That’s very hard to believe and for a simple reason. Over the course of the last five seasons, Peterson is averaging 0.16 missed tackles forced per carry while Charles is down at only 0.11.

And here we’ve finally reached the focal point of my argument. Not all missed tackles are created equal.  Here’s a look at the value generated per missed tackle with Chris Johnson and Marshawn Lynch thrown in for comparison purposes. (These are total numbers from 2008 to 2012.)


How Much Is a Forced Missed Tackle Worth?

Missed Tackles Per attempt (MT/Att), Yards After Contact Per Missed Tackle (YAC/MT), and Yards After Contact Per Attempt (YAC/Att)

Jamaal Charles 0.11 27.3 2.99
Adrian Peterson 0.16 20.1 3.28
Marshawn Lynch 0.19 14.9 2.83
Chris Johnson 0.12 21.6 2.64


I think this chart demonstrates why Jamaal Charles is so underrated and Marshawn Lynch so overrated. Marshawn Lynch forces almost twice as many missed tackles per rush as Charles. As a result, the legend of Beast Mode was born. Unfortunately, because Lynch  generates almost half as many extra yards per missed tackle, he still ends up averaging less YAC/att. than Charles.

Adrian Peterson does average more yardage after contact than Charles because he breaks quite a few more tackles. Still, the value per missed tackle is skewed heavily in JC’s favor, which helps explain why Charles actually bested Peterson in two of the last four seasons. It also helps to explain why a player who has spent his entire career in a terrible offense could be averaging more career yards per carry than any runner in NFL history.


Career Yards Per Carry Leaders Since 1960 (min. 4,000 yards)

Player Att Yds Y/A TD
Jamaal Charles 784 4536 5.79 17
Jim Brown 1610 8514 5.29 66
Mercury Morris 804 4133 5.14 31
Adrian Peterson 1754 8849 5.05 76
Gale Sayers 991 4956 5.00 39
Barry Sanders 3062 15269 4.99 99


2013 Fantasy Value

Of course, none of that means you should pick Charles over Peterson in fantasy leagues. In standard formats, AP seems like the obvious choice. Charles’ touchdown rate would seem like a lock to improve in an upgraded offense, but it’s difficult to project if it will be enough to offset the edge Peterson owns in sheer touches and goal line carries.

In PPR formats the choice isn’t as clear. Charles leads Peterson in career fantasy points per touch by the margin of 0.94 to 0.88 (ppr). Moreover, Andy Reid is bringing his ppr-friendly offense to Kansas City. Peterson remains in Minnesota purgatory. I recently looked at how Purple Jesus stacked up to the fantasy RB greats and came away believing he doesn’t have a high enough ceiling to be a top 5 pick in the upcoming draft. If you want a discouraging note about Peterson’s ceiling, it’s worth remembering he came within nine yards of setting the all-time single season rushing record, and he still finished a full 1.5 ppg short of Brian Westbrook’s 2007. He actually averaged fewer points per game in 2012 than LeSean McCoy averaged in 2011 (22.0 to 21.8).

Although Westbrook and McCoy are good players – possibly even underrated players – Jamaal Charles is on another planet. While Peterson will probably need to find the end zone quite a few more times in 2013 to offset the inevitable decline in his rushing yardage, Charles just needs to have the normal season for an Andy Reid feature back to be an easy choice at No. 1.

The 2013 PFF Draft Guide contains an episode of the Contrarian where I explain how to use concepts like Vision Yards and Agility Score to acquire undervalued running backs. The guide is on sale now


Shawn Siegele is the Lead Redraft Writer for Pro Football Focus, creator of Money in the Banana Stand, and contributor to RotoViz.

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