Midway through the 2009 season, the Chicago Bears elevated running back Kahlil Bell from the practice squad to the 53-man roster. Two days later, Bell took his first handoff as an NFL running back and streaked 72-yards against the Philadelphia Eagles. He carried 40 times that season, averaging a robust 5.5 yards per carry.
Last season, after injuries felled both Matt Forte and Marion Barber, Bell was named the starter for the final two contests. In his first start as a pro, he rushed 23 times for 121 yards, adding four catches for 38 yards. For the season, he had 70 carries for 337 yards (4.3 avg.), to go with 19 receptions for 133 yards.
Bell's late-season surge helped him earn a one-year, $1.26 million contract from the Bears as a restricted free agent this offseason. Yet, despite the raise in pay, Bell is far from a lock to make this year's 53-man roster.
RB Kahlil Bell
Jeff Hanisch/US Presswire
During veteran minicamp last month, coordinator Mike Tice was asked to comment about his running backs.
"We love Michael [Bush]. He's a really good back," said Tice. "I think you need to have two good backs, and we have two good backs. Of course, we love Matt [Forte], and we're excited about having Mike, and we like 25, too. We're excited about our blend back there. We think that they all complement each other, and I think they're all going to be able to find their niche and make big plays for us."
For those unaware, Bell's number is 32, not 25, which is worn by Armando Allen, who was elevated from the practice squad late last season. Tice was asked about his backs and mentioned everyone but Bell. We might be looking too deep into a coach's comments from June but it's worth noting that Tice chose to mention Allen, and not Bell.
Let's break down this upcoming camp competition.
The case for Bell
Bell showed last season that he is perfectly capable of handling a full load of carries. He showcased decent field vision and an ability to make defenders miss. He's not explosive like Forte but he showed good burst through the hole. In addition, he was very impressive as a pass catcher and held his own in pass protection.
Bell's major problem last year was fumbles. He put the ball on the ground three times during his two starts. Under Lovie Smith, a coach that puts a premium on ball security, that is unacceptable. If he continues his fumbling ways in training camp and during the preseason games, it will be hard for Chicago's coaches to build faith in him going forward.
If he cures this issue, then Bell should again earn the third running back job this offseason. He's a solid all-around back who, if called into action, won't derail the Bears' rushing attack.
The case for Allen
Allen spent last offseason in Bourbonnais as an undrafted rookie and earned a place on Chicago's practice squad. The former Notre Dame product was signed to the 53-man roster in Week 16, after Barber was lost for the season. In his first NFL game, he carried 11 times for 40 yards.
Allen (5-8, 199) is smaller than Bell (5-11, 219) but considerably faster. Allen is a quick, shifty back who serves the change-of-pace role better than the bigger, slower Bell.
RB Armando Allen
This offseason, Allen has looked very good rotating with the backups, particularly as a pass catcher, where he shows very soft hands and after-the-catch ability. On screens, he's able to hide behind his blockers and use his quickness to burst through seams.
Of all the backs on the practice fields at Halas Hall during OTAs and veteran minicamp, Allen was the most impressive. If he can carry that over into training camp, he'll be able to leapfrog Bell, giving Chicago a younger, cheaper option on the back end.
Predicting the winner
Overall, Bell was not impressive during the team's offseason activities. He hasn't stood out at all, whereas Allen has looked very good. Allen's skill set would make him perfect in a complementary role and could add another dimension to Chicago's offense, as his ability in the open field dwarfs what Bell has shown.
Tice has taken notice of Allen as well, which bodes well for him entering training camp. If he continues to shine on the practice fields in Bourbonnais, it would not be surprising at all if Tice chooses to go with Allen over Bell, especially if Bell continues to fumble.
This should be an outstanding battle that will play out under the lights during Chicago's preseason games. Whichever back performs better during those contests will likely make the 2012 roster.
Winner: Armando Allen
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.