By Dan Durkin—
Editor’s note: This is the seventh piece in a series previewing the 2015 Bears as the first training camp practice approaches July 30. You can find them in one spot here as they’re posted.READ MORE: Chaos In The Loop Leads To Shooting, Beatings; 21 Young People Arrested
(CBS) Wherever he’s been, Bears coach John Fox has deployed a running back-by-committee approach. Will he be able to do the same in Chicago?
Football’s a physically demanding sport, and running backs take the biggest beating on a weekly basis. The pounding inevitably takes its toll, which means decreased productivity.
The disposable nature of the position has led to it being devalued around the league. Paying big money to players with such acute occupational hazards can be bad business.
Thus, drafting running backs in the middle rounds has become a cheap, short-term labor source for teams. Recycling this approach every few seasons allows teams to spend money on more specialized positions.
However, there are always exceptions to the rule. Matt Forte is certainly one.
Will Forte’s ironman reliability and consistent productivity force Fox and Adam Gase to change their ways and go to a one-back attack? Or will another back emerge and earn weekly snaps?
Matt Forte (29, eighth year)
Other competitors: Daniel Thomas (27, fourth year), Jacquizz Rodgers (25, fifth year), Senorise Perry (23, second year), Ka’Deem Carey (22, second year) and Jeremy Langford (23, rookie)
Key contributor: Matt Forte
Forte’s touches have increased every season since 2011. Last season, he touched the ball on 49 percent of the Bears’ offensive plays. In the process, he set an NFL record for receptions by a running back with 102 and eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the fifth time. He remains one of the league’s most complete backs.
Such staggering consistency and physical resilience speaks volumes about Forte’s in-season and offseason maintenance routines. He went into great and painful detail about the extensive measures he takes after a game to get his body right, including having his shifted joints re-set.
Heading into a contract year, Forte will turn 30 when the Bears prepare for the Redskins in Week 14. Clearly, the Bears more than maximized the return on the $13.8 million guaranteed investment they made on him back in 2012. He’s seeking more security, but the new regime is likely to let his contract situation play out.
Forte’s a great match for the outside-zone plays Gase likes to dial up in the run game and will be an asset in the screen game and on check-downs.
Potential breakthrough player: Jeremy LangfordREAD MORE: 9 Killed, At Least 23 Wounded In Weekend Shootings In Chicago
Langford was a decorated running back in high school, yet he went through a few position changes before succeeding Steelers standout running back Le’Veon Bell at Michigan State. He earned playing time at cornerback and was used as a wide receiver before settling back in the offensive backfield.
At 6-foot, 208 pounds, Langford is physically similar to Forte, but he possesses an extra gear that no other running back on the current roster has. He runs patiently with vision, reading his blockers’ setup. It takes a few steps for him to get to full speed, but he doesn’t lose momentum on lateral cuts. When he presses the hole, he’s a one-cut, north-south runner with big-play ability.
Langford also has a nose for the end zone, scoring 40 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He runs with excellent contact balance through the first two levels of the defense and will shed arm tackles.
Given the speed element he brings to the mix, Langford’s a great fit for Gase’s outside-zone scheme and will make immediate contributions in the screen game. He should have a package of plays designed for him each week.
Final thoughts: Last season, the Broncos broke camp with four running backs on their final 53-man roster. The Bears kept five, while the Saints kept six.
Forte and Langford are roster locks, but who emerges from the logjam behind them should be a heated battle throughout camp.
Despite the Bears spending a fourth-round pick in 2014 on Ka’Deem Carey, that didn’t deter the team from drafting Langford. Carey was a volume runner in a spread offense at Arizona who didn’t make any splash plays in limited attempts last season. Despite his smaller frame, he’s a powerful and willing runner in between the tackles.
Free-agent signee Jacquizz Rodgers has found a niche as a third-down change-of-pace back, but he lacks breakaway speed. He’s been reliable in blitz pickup and has contributed on special teams in the past, but will that be enough for him to stick around?
Free-agent signee Daniel Thomas, a former second-round pick of the Dolphins, has the physical tools teams look for but has been a plodding, inconsistent runner with fumbling issues.
Senorice Perry surprisingly emerged as the team’s kickoff returner last season, but that was a short-lived experiment. He was indecisive and lacked the lateral quickness to keep that spot. Like Thomas, he has the frame to hold up on inside runs, but his lack of burst is an issue.
As good as Forte is on the one-cut zone runs and in the passing game, he leaves a bit to be desired in between the tackles. Thus, whichever player performs better in short-yardage situation in the Carey-Thomas-Perry competition may earn a roster spot.
Once again, Forte will be the centerpiece of the Bears’ running game and generate impact plays. How the new regime views him beyond this season will be a storyline to monitor.
With no proven backup on the roster, if something were to happen to Forte, the team would likely resort to a committee approach. But given the assembled talent behind him, it would be a steep drop-off in productivity.
Position grade: B.MORE NEWS: Jussie Smollett Trial: Jury Could Get Case As Trial Resumes Monday
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @djdurkin.