When the Bears' coaching staff announced last season RB Chester Taylor would be the short yardage specialist, many shook their heads. Taylor, who was one of the most productive third-down running backs in the league the past few years in Minnesota, was being relegated to goal-line duties. Seemingly overnight, he went from being a major asset to a $7-million mistake.
Changing his role from a third-down back to a short-yardage back didn't make a lot of sense. He is no bigger than Matt Forte and doesn't run any harder or stronger. Watching him on film though, it was obvious the move was made because Taylor had lost a step. The faster, shiftier Forte is just as adept on third downs, so the coaching staff was just trying to find a place for the team's big free agent acquisition. The results were underwhelming. He had 267 rushing yards on 112 carries for a career-low 2.4 yards-per-carry average. He had three rushing touchdowns and caught 20 passes for 139 yards.
After front loading the 4-year contract he signed this past off season, the Bears will most likely want to save face and hang on to him for at least one more year -- he'll only cost $1.25 million in 2011. Yet obviously a replacement needs to be found.
RB Garrett Wolfe, a former third-round pick, was not offered a contract tender, so he will not be back. Chicago did tender Khalil Bell, but he doesn't fit into the team's future. The upcoming draft would be a great place to find a runner who can come in and be a true complement to Forte. That runner could be California's Shane Vereen.
RB Shane Vereen
Heading into the Scouting Combine, there were concerns about Vereen's size and strength. Most experts felt he was too small to be an every down ball carrier and would be nothing more than a change-of-pace back.
"I think teams have a lot of questions about me speed-wise and size-wise," he said at the combine. "So I'm looking forward to going out there and showing them the type of player that I really am."
He erased those doubts by measuring in at 5-10, 210-pounds – an inch taller and just a few pounds lighter than Mark Ingram, the consensus No. 1 running back in the draft. He followed that up by running a 4.49 40-yard dash, then benched 225-pounds 31 times – the second most of any RB at the combine, and more than many offensive linemen in attendance. He was also top 10 at his position in the shuttle and three-cone drills.
In those few days in Indianapolis, Vereen's stock value soared. He went form being a fourth- or fifth-round pick to a third-round, or even second-round, selection. Yet when looking at the tape, it's not that big of a surprise.
Vereen is a shifty runner with great open field moves. He runs with his pads low and fights for extra yards, although he often is too easy to bring down. He's not afraid to run between the tackles and has very good breakaway speed.
Yet where Vereen really shines is in the passing game. He hands are arguably the best of any RB coming into the league. At Cal, he was regularly lined up in the slot and out wide, employed more as a receiver than a running back. Being a little smaller than some backs, he is often able to hide among the big bodies up front and slip into the flats unnoticed. Once he gets into space, he's dangerous.
Additionally, he returned kickoffs throughout his college career – an added bonus for Chicago considering Danieal Manning may not be with the team next year. Vereen never missed a game while at California and has no off-the-field baggage. In sitting with him for 10 minutes in Indianapolis, he shows great character and is very well spoken. He graduated after only three years in school.
At 210-pounds, Vereen should be able to handle a full load on Sundays if needed. He runs hard inside and has just enough strength to take the pounding. All in all he could be the most well-rounded runner in the draft, one who is adept at playing in a pro-style offense.
"Our offense was very complex, very pro-style and I think it's going to help me at the next level," he said. "A lot of the pass protections we had at Cal are mirrored in the NFL."
Running back is not high up on the Bears' list of priorities. Yet a kid with Vereen's talent may be hard to pass up if he can be had in the third or fourth round. His ability in the passing game would allow the offense further flexibility. Chicago could use him similar to the way Minnesota uses Percy Harvin. He can line up at receiver, at H-back or in the backfield. And if Forte ever goes down, he has the size to carry the ball 20 times a game.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.