By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) For six seasons, the Bears have benefited from reliable, durable and highly productive star running back Matt Forte. Since arriving in 2008, Forte’s accounted for 31 percent of the Bears’ total offensive yards and 22 percent of their touchdowns.
Yet, since 2010, the Bears have spent nearly $17 million guaranteed on veteran free agent backups like Chester Taylor, Marion Barber and Michael Bush. Those contingency plans amounted to nothing more than bloated insurance policies in which the Bears got nowhere near their expected return on investment.
Playing running back in the NFL comes with a laundry list of occupational hazards. Essentially, the job description is to have numerous car accidents every week, so the risk of injury is high. Thus, save for a few free agent deals for the upper echelon, running backs have become devalued and disposable commodities.
Even in the draft, running backs don’t carry the same clout they once did. Just 10 draft classes ago, three of the first five overall selections were running backs. Yet in 2013, something happened for the first time in 50 years: Not a single running back was taken in the first round. History repeated itself in 2014.
The recent trend has seen teams turning to Day 2 and beyond in the draft for fresh legs that can be utilized for four years at a bargain price. Teams that are astute in their evaluation can unearth a player worthy of a second contract.
This past May, the Bears followed suit, dipping into the cheap labor market to select Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey in the fourth round.
From a pure productivity standpoint, it’s hard to reconcile why 10 other running backs were drafted before Carey. He gained enough rushing yards to scale the Sears, er Willis, Tower nearly nine times and scored an eye-popping 52 touchdowns in 26 career games. It’s safe to assume that front offices were concerned about Carey’s frame, timed speed and off-the-field incidents.
Here’s the breakdown on Carey in our rookie spotlight.
Arm length: 31 3/4″
40-yard dash: 4.69
Vertical jump: 32 1/2″
Carey played sparingly as a freshman at Arizona and was part of a regime change in 2012, when Rich Rodriguez brought his no-huddle shotgun scheme to Tucson. Rodriguez’s base offense is zone-read with a triple-option component that was a great match for Carey’s running style.
Vision – Running back is a position that operates within very confined spaces, and Carey showed excellent vision to find creases in the defensive front. In a zone-blocked scheme, running backs must read the setup of specific blockers to see if they get movement on the down linemen to proceed on their track or cut back when necessary. Carey showed an excellent feel for blocking angles and patience before pressing and bursting through the line of scrimmage, as well as the agility to turn potential losses into positive yardage.
Contact balance – Carey is a physical, violent runner who gains a lot of yards after contact, which is a testament to his balance. He’s a very efficient runner who doesn’t waste a lot of movement or time by taking too many steps in the hole. He typically makes one quick lateral move with his feet or his shoulders to get a tackler off balance, then runs with high knees and agility to evade tacklers. When runners get their lower body extended too far laterally, they lose momentum and have to take more steps to get back to full speed. Carey is efficient with his footwork and keeps a balanced framework (legs) to keep his momentum going forward.
Finishes runs – In both short-yardage and goal-line situations, Carey has a natural feel for the line to gain and runs with excellent leg churn. He’s an instinctive, decisive, north-and-south runner who focuses on the next level of defenders to determine the path of least resistance. Carey runs aggressively and isn’t shy about putting his facemask in the breastplate of defenders to gain an extra yard.
Areas for improvement
Lowering his pad level – For the most part, Carey runs with a balanced pad level, but he does have a tendency to get too upright at times, which gives the defense a bigger striking surface. Seeing that he’s only 5-foot-9, perhaps being upright is out of necessity to afford him better downfield vision. However, given the closing speed of defenders in the NFL, Carey must use his stature to his advantage and keep a lower center of gravity and forward body lean as he navigates the defense.
Staying square in pass protection – Carey is a willing blocker in pass protection and blitz pickup, but he must work on keeping his pads square at the collision point. He has a tendency to expose his numbers to the sidelines when chipping on an end or picking up a blitzer, which will get you — and your quarterback — beat in the NFL. Making yourself narrow like that makes it easier for defenders to shed and continue their path to the quarterback. Forte is stout in pass protection, so Carey has an excellent mentor at his disposal.
Weight gain – Certainly, scouts were concerned by Carey’s frame and durability as they project him into the NFL. Carey’s muscular, but given the fact that he’s a contact runner, he could stand to get his weight up to the 215-pound range. This would benefit both his effectiveness and longevity. He’s not a home-run hitter, but rather a quick and agile runner, so adding weight won’t compromise what makes him effective. NFL running backs take a beating, so Carey would be wise to add more armor.
Prospects for 2014
When you eliminate quarterback scrambles and Alshon Jeffery end arounds, Forte had 82 percent of the Bears’ carries last season. The Bears are all in for 2014, so the need to preserve Forte’s legs for a potential playoff run is critical. Carey projects as a complementary back in 2014, with the potential to be their short-yardage and goal-line back, given his motor and prowess for gaining tough yards.
Many personnel errors have been made with a stopwatch in hand, rather than what happens when the game kicks off. Carey’s play speed is faster than his timed speed, and his productivity can’t be denied. Yes, he was a volume back who piled up carries and yards, and he will never be a running back who’s a threat to take it to the house from any distance. However, Carey’s a persistent runner who produced several explosive gains in college.
With some fine tuning and good health, he figures to be a fixture in the Bears’ backfield for the next four seasons.
Follow Dan on Twitter: @djdurkin