Whether his NFL career, at least with the Broncos, extends beyond that will boil down to one day: Saturday night, when the Broncos face the Green Bay Packers in Week 3 of the preseason.
“This is going to be Jamaal’s shot to go do his thing. He knows it. He’s ready,” Vance Joseph said.
Charles, 30, is no stranger to top-level success. Along with four Pro Bowls, he's a two-time First-Team All-Pro, Second-Team All-Pro and holds the NFL record for career rushing yards per attempt (5.5), topping names such as Jim Brown (5.2) Mercury Morris (5.1) and Barry Sanders (five).
In the ruthless business that is the NFL, however, what players have done in the past rarely matters; it’s what they can do for a team in the present and future that teams care about.
Charles has four 100-yard rushing games against the Broncos alone and three 200-yard games in his career, but the decision on his future in Orange & Blue will come down to just one game.
During the entire offseason, Joseph has stressed that the Broncos “have a plan” for Charles. Apparently, the plan was simple: hold him back until the third preseason game, let him loose and see if he can play.
So, the question arises, what do the Broncos need to see, or not see, for Charles to “pass” the test Saturday night?
“If he’s healthy, he’s going to provide a spark in the element of speed that we needed as far as being an explosive offense,” Joseph said after the Broncos signed Charles in May.
On Wednesday, Joseph kept it simple, yet ambiguous, in terms of what Charles need to show during the team’s third preseason game: “Just Jamaal being Jamaal," Joseph said.
Simply, he needs to show flashes of his old self just enough to convince Joseph this wasn't a mistake. Outside of his rookie year, every season that Charles has played in more than five games (six times) he’s rushed for more than 1,000 yards. Yet he has battled significant injuries—specifically the last two seasons, missing 24 out of a possible 32 games because of knee injuries.
According to Joseph, there are two things Denver will be looking for: IF he’s healthy—can take a hit and get back up—and IF he still has the top-end speed that made him a dangerous weapon with Kansas City.
During OTAs, mini camp and training camp, Charles has been treated almost like a secret weapon with the Broncos rarely using him. He hasn’t taken a real hit since joining the Broncos and has taken only a handful of live reps.
The encouraging news for Charles is the Broncos have witnessed his explosion in practice “for about two or three weeks,” according to Joseph. But in the end, Saturday night will be the true test.
“Jamaal’s going to play a lot this week. I’m not sure how much [but] a lot,” Joseph said. “He’s going to be involved early. Probably during the first 15 [plays].”
Much like his head coach, fellow running back, and starter, C.J. Anderson wants to see if Charles can return to the form he was in a few years ago when he would essentially beat the Broncos singlehandedly.
“I just want to see, is it Jamaal,” Anderson wondered.
Fortunately, for Anderson and Joseph, Charles had a direct answer: “I’ve always been Jamaal—Jamaal never went anywhere. I’m just on a different team now.”
NFL can stand for many things, and in Charles’ case, if Saturday night doesn't go as planned, it could stand for Not For Long, at least in terms of his tenure with the Broncos.
“I’m just going out there and just do what I always do and let talent speak for itself," Charles said.