The Chicago Bears made a number of upgrades to the offensive line this offseason. GM Phil Emery signed starter-caliber veterans, which includes two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod, and spent two draft picks on fresh talent for the front five, including first rounder Kyle Long.
No matter how the line shakes out, Jay Cutler should be much better protected than he has been the past three seasons. Yet the Bears running backs should also benefit from improved talent up front.
"I'm excited. You always want to see the line get bolstered up front because that's where it starts in the passing game and the running game," said starting RB Matt Forte. "With Bushrod, I've known him. When I went to the Pro Bowl is when I first met him. He was a good guy, and we actually signed him. So it was exciting to see him come here."
The new zone-blocking scheme being installed by offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer should also provide the backs more room to run.
"There's (not) a lot of different runs, just different blocking schemes, which I think suit our offensive line," Forte said. "[There's] a lot of potential in this offense to be explosive in the running game."
Most believe that Forte will excel in a one-cut run offense that better utilizes his quickness and field vision than did the former man-based system of Mike Tice. Forte's backup, Michael Bush, should also benefit with blocking schemes that allow him to pick up speed before plunging into the hole. When Kromer and head coach Marc Trestman were in charge of the Oakland Raiders offense from 2001-2003, they used a two-back, lighting-and-thunder system with Charlier Garner (speed) and Tyrone Wheatley (power). Expect the 2013 Bears to do the same with Forte and Bush.
Armando Allen (5-10, 190) 3rd year
Allen was signed to the practice squad late in 2011 and beat out Lorenzo Booker last preseason for the club's No. 3 RB role. In 2012, Allen carried 27 times for 124 yards (4.6 avg.), including a 46-yard TD scamper in the Week 5 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. He's a diminutive runner who can sometimes squeeze through tiny cracks between the tackles but ideally, he's better used on the edges or as a receiver. In training camp last year, he was used as a multi-dimensional pass catcher and showed very well in that role. Yet he was completely ignored in the passing game once the regular season began, catching just two total passes in 15 games played. If he can again demonstrate his value as a receiver in a potential third-down role it's going to be hard for Trestman, who loves pass-catching running backs, to cut Allen.
Michael Ford (5-9, 210) Rookie
After a less-than-stellar career at LSU, Ford surprisingly chose to skip his senior season to enter the 2013 NFL Draft. He was a standout at the combine but his lack of production in college, as well as serious questions about his hands – he caught just eight passes in three collegiate seasons – and his struggles in pass protection left him undrafted. He's the same height as Allen yet he's 20 pounds heavier and runs with power. He has shown great short-yardage ability and could be very good in that role with the Bears. Yet his path to Chicago's roster will likely come on special teams. In 2012, Ford returned 20 kicks for 549 yards. His 27.5-yard return average was second best in the SEC. With Devin Hester clinging perilously to a roster spot, Ford has the chance to prove he's capable of being a full-time returner. If he does, then the Bears may see his value on special teams as being greater than that of Allen as a third-down back.
For those who believe this to be a meaningless camp competition, think again. In 2011, the Bears' top two backs (Forte and Marion Barber) finished the year on injured reserve and last season, Bush finished on IR. If history repeats itself at one of the most injury prone positions in the sport, Chicago's third RB will again serve a significant role in 2013.
With most of these back-end positional battles, special teams are usually the deciding factor. In rookie minicamp and OTAs, Ford has looked good as a kick returner. Unfortunately, the Bears already have two Pro Bowl returners with Hester and Eric Weems. As a running back, Ford offers short-yardage value but not much else. So he'll have to be amazing as a kick returner if he's going to beat out Allen, a much better overall running back, for a spot on the final 53-man roster.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.