Since the start of the 2010 season, there have been five "flex players" (running backs, wide receivers and tight ends) who have scored more than 14 fantasy points per game. Three of them are surefire first-round picks and one was unsigned until the middle of July. The fifth is possibly the most underrated player in the first two rounds of fantasy drafts this season: Jamaal Charles.
The leader, and the one who was on the market until July, is none other than Arian Foster. The three surefire first-rounders are Odell Beckham Jr., Adrian Peterson and Le'Veon Bell (at least before his suspension), and the wise among you will remember times at which all three of them suffered concerning injuries.
Beckham's career got off to an incredibly slow start thanks to a hamstring injury, similar to the one he dealt with in 2015. Peterson suffered an ACL injury just a couple of years ago, and had serious injury concerns coming out of college. And Bell, setting aside his suspension, is recovering from a knee injury that led ESPN's fantasy experts to place him below Peterson in our first batch of rankings.
Yet Charles was ranked 12th, and is being drafted outside of the first round. Which seems a bit odd, right?
Let's do some mythbusting to dismiss a couple of your likely concerns about the Kansas City back.
But he has competition
Yes, Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West had moments of brilliance last year, and those lucky enough to scoop up Ware for his six touchdowns or West for his five were almost certainly thrilled with their decisions.
But let's consider where both of these players fall short of Charles.
Before suffering his injury, Charles had 71 rushing attempts, on which he gained 364 yards and four touchdowns. That's good for 5.13 yards per carry. From 2010 until 2014, he averaged 5.42 yards per rush. We have come to expect, and failed to appreciate, his consistent rushing production.
There's no other way to explain how anyone would expect West, who averaged 3.96 yards per attempt on 160 rushes last year, would be a true threat to Charles. He scored the same amount of rushing touchdowns on more than double the carries (meaning fewer touchdowns per rushing attempt). He gained fewer yards after contact per carry and posted similar numbers as a receiver (an 80-yard touchdown reception against the Broncos boosted his yards per catch from just more than 7 to just less than 11).
A better case can be made for Ware, as the LSU product scored six touchdowns on the ground on 72 attempts, and picked up tons of yards after contact. He was a nightmare for opposing defenses, and proved to be a real threat to score.
But Ware managed just six catches for five yards on the season, and this is where he clearly falls short. He's going to take touches away from Charles inside the 20, but that has never been an area where Charles has relied on volume.
From 2012 to 2014, the prime of Charles' fantasy dominance, he ranked 10th among RBs in rushing attempts inside the opponent's 20. However, change that to per game stats and he ranks 24th. Still, he wound up with 18 red-zone touchdowns, seventh most over that span.
So give Ware a few red zone touches -- he was probably going to have them anyway. Give West a series or two per game as the every down back. It only makes sense, you have to keep your starter fresh. But I just don't see a way that Charles isn't the team's lead back by a wide margin, even if it's at a slightly lower volume than we were spoiled with in recent seasons.
But he's too old, hurt and has too many carries
This is the other main concern about Charles, and probably the one that most people will cite when choosing to draft David Johnson, Devonta Freeman or Lamar Miller ahead of him in fantasy drafts. While it is certainly true that those three players have accumulated less mileage in their NFL careers than Charles, it's not like the Kansas City back has been overworked in his career, nor that his injuries are due to an overload of hits and bumps and brusies.
Since 2010, Charles ranks 20th in carries per game in the league and 14th in receptions per game among backs. (Now compare these figures with his top-five standing in fantasy points per game referenced earlier.)
And he has proven that he can flourish in low-volume situations before. His breakout season in 2009 afforded Charles just 230 touches in 15 games, on which he scored eight touchdowns and totaled more than 1,400 yards. His 217 PPR points that season would have ranked seventh in 2015, and ninth in 2014.
Yes, past injury predicts future injury, and players like Bell and Charles have recent, major knee issues that should be a red flag moving forward. But even our top-ranked Peterson has a major knee injury in his past, and he's not getting any younger or rewinding the wear and tear on his body after being the lone source of offense for Minnesota for quite some time.
So while I can't blame you for liking Bell, Peterson or even Todd Gurley (who suffered a notable injury himself), I don't see a reason why Charles shouldn't be in the discussion with those players as a top-seven pick in every single draft. And now that Bell is facing a suspension, there are even fewer proven commodities at the running back position with the upside Charles possesses.
If his floor in a 16-game season is the volume from his 15-game "debut" in 2009, he's currently being drafted at his floor as the sixth or seventh back off the board in ESPN leagues. And in other league formats on other sites, he's going even later, while many analysts say he's not an RB1, and some claim he's not even an RB2.
His ceiling is being the top fantasy running back, as my early projections using ESPN standard scoring have him with the most points of all players at the position. There's risk and reward to consider, but there's no reason for Charles to fall outside of the top 10 in drafts or the top five at his position.