The Denver Broncos signed former Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles to a one-year deal worth up to $3.75 million on Tuesday.
Charles is one of the best running backs of his generation: a four-time Pro Bowler who has racked up 7,260 yards and 44 touchdowns on the ground to go with 2,457 yards and 20 scores as a receiver over a nine-year career. And he carries the highest average yards per carry (5.45) of any running back in NFL history with at least 1,000 attempts, eclipsing what previously felt like an unbreakable mark that Jim Brown had set more than 50 years ago. Charles is one of the most dynamic running back talents the league has ever seen, slippery between the tackles, explosive as a breakaway threat in space, and sure-handed in the passing game.
The Broncos struggled mightily on the ground in 2016, averaging just 92.8 rushing yards per game (27th) and 3.6 yards per carry (tied for 29th), finding the end zone 11 times on the year (tied for 20th). Part of the blame could go to an underwhelming run-blocking offensive line — which finished 18th in adjusted line yards on the season, per Football Outsiders — but Denver’s lack of depth behind starter C.J. Anderson (whose promising start was cut short by a knee injury in Week 7) was a big issue too. Rookie Devontae Booker wasn’t very effective in relief, and late-season depth addition Justin Forsett was just a stopgap measure. Charles provides a badly needed upgrade. He should be an option on all three downs because of his prowess as a pass-catcher, and, because of his vision and elusiveness, he has the potential to make a still-bad offensive line look relatively competent.
We don’t know exactly what the Broncos offense will look like next year under new head coach Vance Joseph and new offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, but if Charles can stay on the field, he’s versatile enough to fit whatever it is Denver decides to do. Charles is a good fit running behind power run-blocking schemes and has a one-cut-and-go style that would make him effective behind zone-blocking. He’s also an experienced outlet option for whoever is playing quarterback for Denver, and has a preternatural talent for picking his way through traffic in the screen-pass game.
Even assuming the 30-year-old back has lost a step or two and doesn’t have quite as much nitro boost at his disposal to get around the corner and upfield, Charles has the savvy as a runner to be a productive complement to Anderson, particularly as a receiver out of the backfield.
But his success or failure in Denver will be contingent upon his health, and the fact is that Charles missed 27 of the last 35 possible games in Kansas City as he battled back from a torn ACL and surgery on his meniscus. At this point, there’s not a lot of reason to believe he’ll ever regain the form that made him the backbone of the Chiefs offense for so many years. Instead, Denver is betting on getting a solid veteran role player with some upside.
Still, like Marshawn Lynch’s two-year pact in Oakland, it’s a low-risk move that doesn’t cost the Broncos any draft picks or very much money. There’s not much downside to bringing Charles in and seeing if he can provide a spark.