For many years, the Chicago Bears were a team that “got off the bus running,” as former head coach Lovie Smith was wont to say.
Yet for the past two seasons the run game in Chicago has been an afterthought. In 2014, the Bears finished 27th in the NFL in rushing, which heaped far too much weight on quarterback Jay Cutler’s shoulders, resulting in a 5-11 record.
With a new regime in place, everyone is curious whether offensive coordinator Adam Gase will utilize his backfield talent or once again put the emphasis of the offense on Cutler.
One thing is for sure, if Gase goes with a run-heavy approach, he’ll have plenty of options from which to choose. The Bears will enter training camp next month with six running backs on the roster, almost all of whom will be fighting for a roster spot.
Let’s break down in detail the half dozen ball carriers that will be on hand in Bourbonnais.
Forte is coming off another outstanding campaign. In 2014, he finished third in the NFL in yards from scrimmage (1,846) and set an NFL record for receptions by a running back (102).
As a one-cut runner in a zone-blocking scheme, as well as his prowess as a receiver, there are few starting running backs in the NFL better than Forte.
Yet he’ll turn 30 in December, the age at which most NFL backs hit the wall, which is why the Bears have balked at giving him a contract extension.
Based on what I’ve seen from him the past month during OTAs and mandatory minicamp, Forte is ready to have another big year. He looks as physically fit as he did in 2011 (my first year on the job) and has been putting in extra effort on coordination drills during special-teams portions of practice.
In addition, he underwent speed training during the off-season to help him regain burst.
“I went to the same guy [I went to] coming out for the Combine,” Forte said during OTAs. “My 40-time coming out of college was 4.5-something and I ended up running in the low 4.4s. So I used to go back a lot of times in the postseason every year. I missed last year, I didn’t go, and I felt the effects of my burst going through the holes and stuff like that, or just accelerating after catching the ball. So I went back and did that type of training and got a lot better. I got a benefit out of it.”
Mentally and physically, Forte is showing no signs of slowing down, so there’s no reason to believe this will be the year his production drops off the cliff. He won’t catch as many passes as he did last season and he may be spelled on game days more often than in the past, but Forte looks like a running back poised for one last run at Pro Bowl season.
Rodgers spent four seasons as the primary backup in Atlanta and will again serve in that role with the Bears.
A diminutive ball carrier (5-6, 196), Rodgers brings a low center of gravity and shiftiness at the point of attack. He’s also a very good pass catcher, having snagged 155 passes in four seasons, including 53 and 52 receptions in 2012 and 2013 respectively. And in pass protection, Rodgers can more than hold his own.
He’s a career backup who hasn’t had a run longer than 20 yards in more than two seasons, so he’s no a game breaker, but Rodgers does the little things well. In addition, his thick trunk and thighs give him the ability to carry the pile.
As a primary backup and change-of-pace back, the Bears could do a lot worse than Rodgers.
The Bears used a fourth-round pick in this year’s draft on Langford, who rushed for 2,944 yards and 40 TDs the past two years for Michigan State.
Yet Langford jumps into a crowded backfield that includes last year’s fourth-round pick as well.
At the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine, Langford posted a 4.42 40-yard dash, the fastest of all running backs. That speed has shown up on the practice field, as has his ability as a pass catcher, an area of his game about which many have questioned.
The Bears aren’t likely going to cut a fourth-round pick his rookie season, so unless he falls flat on his face in Bourbonnais, expect Langford to have a role in 2015. How big of a role is up to him.
In Chicago’s backfield, Langford is second only to Forte in terms of talent and will be given every opportunity to de-seat Rodgers as the primary backup. A strong showing in the preseason, one that shows off his top-line speed and ability to make defenders miss, will be key for Langford.
Beyond that he must show value on special teams, an area in which he has plenty of experience.
The Bears used a fourth-round pick on Carey last year but he could not find a role in Marc Trestman’s offense. He finished his rookie season with just 36 carries for 158 yards and was a healthy scratch the final two weeks of the campaign. The front office then signed Rodgers and drafted Langford, putting Carey’s future with the team in question.
Carey is not an accomplished pass catcher and does not have breakaway speed. He runs hard between the tackles but beyond that, he’s yet to demonstrate the type of value that will force Gase and head coach John Fox to save him a roster spot.
Carey was once the future of the run game but is now clinging to a roster spot. If he falters in the preseason, he could be looking for work come September.
The Bears worked out Thomas during mandatory minicamp and they liked what they saw, signing him to a one-year deal the day after camp broke.
Thomas spent four seasons with the Dolphins working in committee backfields, tallying career highs his rookie season with 165 carries for 581 rushing yards. He is, for all intents and purposes, a mid-tier backup.
Yet Thomas has an advantage over every other back on this roster: size. He’s 235 pounds. To put that in perspective, he’s just a few pound lighter than former perennial Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis.
The Bears have struggled for years in goal-line situations and there’s an outside chance Thomas may stick as a short-yardage specialist.
On the surface, Perry appears to be the odd man out. He’s not an elusive runner and he’s struggled in practice to this point.
On offense, Perry has almost no value but he was a core member of the special teams last season. In fact, according to the Bears’ coaching staff, who tally their own special-teams statistics, Perry led the club with 17 special-teams tackles last year. He was also used as a kick returner early in the campaign, so he’s experienced in that area as well.
If Perry shines in the third phase during the preseason, he may again occupy the No. 4 RB role, as he did for most of 2014.
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.