The NFL is a business in which players are cycled through rosters every season. Contracts aren’t fully guaranteed, so vested veterans are cut each year to make way for bigger, stronger, faster and younger players. It’s a cutthroat business where one unfortunate turn of an ankle can cost an athlete a king’s ransom.
Within that framework, NFL players are rentals, dumped aside at a moment’s notice. Yet running backs are the true commodities. During the past 10 years, as the league has become increasingly pass-heavy, running backs have been devalued to all-time low levels.
Think about it, in 2005, Cadillac Williams, Ronnie Brown and Cedric Benson were all Top 5 overall picks. Ten years later, the 2014 NFL Draft saw 53 players come off the board before the Tennessee Titans selected Bishop Sankey at 54th overall.
It took just a decade for NFL running backs to go from the premiere position in the league to first-round afterthoughts.
The NFL may have little use for ball carriers but that’s not the case for Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman. Last year, Trestman called 289 run plays for Pro Bowler Matt Forte, his most carries in a single season since his rookie year. Forte also had a career-high 74 receptions.
Yet despite Trestman’s old-school reliance on running backs, and Forte’s outstanding production, there are some question marks regarding Chicago’s offensive backfield in 2014.
With offseason activities in the books and training camp just two weeks away, here is our full progress report on the Bears running backs.
Forte is coming off one of his best seasons as a professional, which earned him his second straight trip to the Pro Bowl. He finished 2013 with career highs in rushing yards (1,339), receptions (74), receiving yards (594), rushing touchdowns (9) and total touchdowns (12), while his 1,833 yards from scrimmage were second most in the NFL.
Yet Forte is 28 and turns 29 before the end of the season, the age at which NFL running backs historically hit the wall. He’ll be 30 next December, the age at which NFL ball carriers historically become obsolete.
In reality, Forte’s best days are most likely behind him. That doesn’t mean he can’t produce at a very high level this year but age will eventually catch up to him, as it does with every pro running back.
The Bears are aware of this as well, which is why they invested a fourth-round pick on a young ball carrier in this year’s draft. Forte will, for this season at least, continue to be the workhorse back in Trestman’s offense, yet expect the rookie to take some of that production off the veteran’s plate.
In that way, the Bears can lighten Forte’s workload in an attempt to keep him healthy and fresh throughout the year. He’s still one of the best one-cut runners in the game and he’s very dependable as a pass catcher, and the offense will need to lean on him at times, so Forte could churn out his final Pro Bowl campaign in 2014.
This is a backfield in its first transitional stages but Forte should still have one more good year left in him. He may not match his 2013 numbers but he’ll again be a stabilizing presence for Chicago’s offense.
Ka’Deem Carey was one of the most productive ball carriers in the nation for Arizona the past two years but a 4.70 40-yard dash facilitated his drop to the fourth round of this year’s draft, where the Bears snatched him at 117th overall.
A two-time All-American, the Bears believe Carey has the potential to be Forte’s long-term successor. In the short term, the team would be happy if he can fill one crucial role: short-yardage back.
Chicago has been one of the worst short-yardage teams in the league the past few seasons and must get better in that area. Carey isn’t a speedy runner but he’s thick in the lower body and keeps his leg churning after contact. If he carries that over to the goal line at Soldier Field, he’ll immediately be worth the selection.
In the long-term, Carey’s prospects are even better. During OTAs and minicamp he demonstrated very good hands out of the backfield, as well as solid one-cut ability in coordinator Aaron Kromer’s zone-blocking scheme.
With no contact during practice, we’ll have to wait until the preseason to see Carey in live action. If he shows in those games what he’s demonstrated so far this offseason, his role in the offense will expand as the year progresses.
With Carey on board, most have written off Michael Ford, who was the only 2013 UDFA to stick with the team for all 16 games last season. Ford barely saw the field but his time on the 53-man roster last year surely did him well. He’s a powerful runner who also has experience as a kick returner.
Ford split second-team carries with Carey during offseason activities. That will likely continue during training camp until one player emerges as the better option to be Forte’s backup. That will likely wind up being Carey but a strong performance by Ford in the preseason will again land him a spot on the final 53.
Ford has not yet earned any practice reps as a return man, so he doesn’t appear to be in the running for that open competition. Yet Ford has been used as a starter in the other third-team phases, so he obviously has value in the eyes of coordinator Joe DeCamillis.
Despite the position switch, Lynch looked good this offseason. He’s a natural football player and, while he was a bit unsure of himself in the early stages, his athleticism shined through on numerous occasions. He has surprisingly good hands out of the backfield and looks very comfortable as a runner.
Lynch has the potential to de-seat Ford as the club’s No. 3 ball carrier. He’ll need to prove himself to DeCamillis first but he’ll help himself immensely if he shows well in short-yardage situations in the preseason.
Rounding out the roster is veteran Shaun Draughn and rookie Senorise Perry. Both are long shots to make the team this year and will need to be amazing in camp to earn a roster spot. Perry, who earned an invite to Bourbonnais after a strong rookie minicamp, is a fast, fluid runner who fits well in Kromer’s system. His hands are sketchy but a year on the practice squad could help him develop into a better all-around player.
Forte will be Forte this year. Trestman is going to ride his workhorse like he always does but expect Carey to eat into Forte’s touches as the season progresses. When it comes down to it, having a healthy Forte in Week 17 and beyond is more important than giving him 30 touches in Week 5. At 28 years old, the team has to start reducing his workload.
Carey should serve well in that role, especially if he can pick up crucial yards near the goal line. At the very least, his skill set as a pass catcher will give him value on third downs.
Lynch is an experienced, accomplished player. There has to be a role for a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist, right? Keep on eye on him in camp. If he starts moving up the depth chart, on either offense or special teams, he could leapfrog Ford in a bid for the final RB spot.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. 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.