The consternation from drafting Langford is due to the presence of three capable running backs already on Chicago’s roster. With a defense littered with holes, why would Pace select a player at a position of relative strength?
Matt Forte is coming off a season in which he finished third in the league yards from scrimmage (1,846) and broke the NFL record for receptions by a running back (102). The team also signed Jacquizz Rodgers in free agency and invested a fourth-round pick in 2014 on Ka’Deem Carey.
The Bears, coming off a 5-11 campaign, were not in a position of luxury in the fourth round, when a number of potential defensive starters were still available. Questioning the Langford pick is understandable but there are a number of reasons why he could emerge as the best long-term pick of Pace’s first draft.
The Illusion of Stability
Chicago’s backfield has depth but there are legitimate concerns about each of the three veterans.
Forte turns 30 in December and is entering the final year of his contract. He lobbied for an extension earlier this offseason but Pace balked. Despite seven years of strong production, this is very likely Forte’s last season in Chicago, so finding his long-term replacement is a necessity.
Some believe Carey can be the club’s workhorse back of the future but, in reality, his skill set is limited. Former head coach Marc Trestman had little use for him last season – Carey had six total touches beyond Week 8 and was a healthy scratch the final two games of the campaign – and, with the drafting of Langford, it doesn’t appear the new coaching staff thinks highly of him either.
Rodgers is only 26 years old but has never been a starter in his career and is more of a complementary third-down back – he had 105 receptions in 2012 and 2013 combined. In 63 games played, he’s had 10 or more carries only seven times.
Need for Speed
At the 2008 NFL Scouting Combine, Forte ran a 4.46 40-yard dash. That’s very good speed for a running back.
Yet after seven years of wear and tear in the NFL, along with two knee surgeries, Forte no longer possesses breakaway pace. Last season he had just one run of more than 20 yards, which says a lot about his reduced speed and ability to make defenders miss at the second level.
Additionally, Rodgers’ longest run the past two seasons was 19 yards, while Carey ran a snail-like 4.70 at last year’s combine.
The Bears do not have a homerun hitter in the backfield, which puts the offense at a severe disadvantage, particularly against high-scoring teams like the Packers and Lions. A ball carrier that can turn an 8-yard run into a 60-yard touchdown is a game changer.
With Langford, whose 4.42 40-yard dash was the fastest among running backs at this year’s combine, gives Chicago a speed element it desperately needs.
Even if Langford works in only a part-time role this season, if he can contribute with a handful of explosive plays, he’ll add an extra dimension to the offense. Just having that threat on the field puts pressure on opposing defenses in a way Carey and Rodgers, and even Forte, cannot.
In today’s NFL, which revolves around speed, Langford’s breakaway ability has a lot value.
Langford is not just a one-trick pony. In two seasons as a starter for Michigan State he had 40 rushing touchdowns, most of which came in the red zone.
Short-yardage and goal-line situations have been the bane of Chicago’s offense for years. With Langford, who runs with power and low pad level, those issues could be a thing of the past.
“I feel like when coaches call the running play down [in the red zone] and it’s meant for me, I have to score,” Langford said last week at rookie minicamp. “I feel like it takes a lot of pressure off our offense, not getting three points and just getting the touchdown. They really count on me a lot down there so first sign of daylight I see I feel like I have to get in there, push it in there. I feel like I get momentum for a lot of games when you can run it in there instead of throwing it.”
With Langford, the Bears not only have a homerun hitter with value between the 20s but also a running back with a nose for the end zone.
During his first two years with the Spartans, Langford played cornerback and wide receiver, despite his desire to remain a running back. Yet looking back, his time spent at other positions helped him develop into a complete player.
“When I was younger, it was a little frustrating playing DB and playing receiver,” said Langford. “I just wanted to find a home. I think in the long run, learning the whole offense and really reading defenses better, it helped.”
Langford’s time on defense also gives him increased value on special teams, where he has experience.
“I played all special teams, so I can tackle,” he said. “I feel like the special teams helped as well because everybody can’t play special teams. It takes mental toughness and physical toughness.”
The Bears have bodies at running back but none with the skill set of Langford. In all likelihood, offensive coordinator Adam Gase is going to run Forte into the ground this year, squeezing every last ounce from one of the best all-around backs in the game.
Yet Langford can still have an impact this season, especially if he emerges from training camp as second on the depth chart.
Beyond 2015, Langford’s value increases, as he accustomed to carrying a heavy load. In 2013 and 2014 combined, he toted the rock 568 times. He was the engine for Michigan State’s offense and has the all-around skill set to be that player again for the Bears.
The same can’t be said for Carey and Rodgers, so with Forte almost assuredly gone after this year, finding a potential workhorse in the fourth round makes a lot of sense.
Langford isn’t perfect – he’s not an accomplished pass catcher and must improve in pass protection – but considering the uncertainty in Chicago’s backfield, acquiring him in the middle rounds was more than justified.
And if Langford emerges as the club’s starting running back until 2020, he may go down as the best pick of Pace’s first draft.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fifth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.