The Chicago Bears made a bold move this off-season, allowing franchise running back Matt Forte to exit the team via free agency. Forte will be the primary back for the New York Jets this season, which leaves nothing but question marks for Chicago's backfield.
The Bears have a number of options, yet how they'll piece together these diverse backs remains to be seen. Training camp and the preseason is when the backfield picture will become much clearer.
With that in mind, let's break down the five running backs that will be attending Bears training camp in Bourbonnais, as well as the two fullbacks.
Last year's fourth-round selection, Jeremy Langford was a big part of Chicago's offense his rookie season. After slowly being worked into the rotation, Langford emerged as a viable No. 2 option behind Forte, touching the ball 170 times for 816 total yards.
Langford's best game came in his second start, the Week 10 contest against the St. Louis Rams. He finished that game with 182 total yards (73 rushing, 109 receiving) and 2 TDs, demonstrating his game-breaking ability both as a runner and a receiver.
With Forte in New York, most assume Langford will just step into the starter's role and be the primary ball carrier for the Bears.
Not so fast.
Concerns with Langford begin with his 3.6 yards per carry, which ranked 44th out of 47 qualifying runners last year, and end with his eight dropped passes, which led all NFL RBs. Based on those numbers alone, one would assume Langford is an inconsistent ball carrier with sketchy hands, and who could argue?
That's why Chicago's coaching staff has no intentions of just handing over the starting gig to Langford, who has yet to truly earn that role.
During off-season activities, Langford rotated with both the first and second teams. He enters training camp in a full-fledged positional battle against rookies and veterans alike. For that reason, Langford might be the Bears player with the most to prove this off-season. If he falters as a runner or receiver, the coaching staff will not hesitate to turn to their other options, of which there are plenty.
The pressure is on the second-year runner, yet there are a couple of reasons to believe he's up to the challenge.
First, Langford is a former collegiate receiver who does not drop passes in practice, to which I can personally attest. His hands aren't the issue, it's his concentration that wanes on the game field. If he can learn to focus more on securing the ball, instead of what he's going to do after the catch, he should be just fine as a receiver.
Second, Langford's yards per carry last year is troublesome but that 3.6 average is skewed by some early-season struggles and rookie rust. Over the final six contests, he averaged a solid 4.1 yards per carry, which was better than big-name runners like Devonta Freeman and Latavius Murray, and equal to that of Forte. Clearly Langford got better as the season progressed, which is a good sign toward him taking another step forward this season.
Heading into camp, Langford is the frontrunner to win the starting running back job. He's a 4.42 runner who is by far the most explosive ball carrier on the team. He just needs to refine the little things and he'll earn the lion's share of RB touches this year.
But if he continues to struggle in important areas, particularly in pass protection, he'll quickly be relegated to change-of-pace duties. We'll see whether he buckles or flourishes under the pressure.
Jordan Howard was a bell-cow beast for Indiana last season, rushing for 1,213 yards (6.2 ypc) and 9 TDs, despite missing four games due to injury.
Howard is a downhill, bruising runner who delivers as much punishment as he receives. Between the tackles, his lower-body power and leg churn make him a load to stop, and he always falls forward. He'll have immediate value as a short-yardage back for the Bears, yet the opportunity will be there for more.
Howard averaged 6.2 yards per carry last year and led the nation in yards after contact. He has all the makings of a 20-carry running back upon whom the Bears can build their rushing attack.
Yet Howard is an unknown commodity who dealt with two significant injuries last year, which forced him to miss four games and leave early in three others. And things didn't start well for Howard in Chicago, as he missed most of rookie minicamp and all of OTAs with a hamstring injury.
Clearly health will be the biggest factor for Howard but if he can stay off the injury report, he has long-term potential in the Bears' backfield. At the very least, Howard should excel near the goal line and as an alternative power option in a committee approach.
If Howard finds his groove as the year progresses, especially when the weather turns toward freezing in Chicago, he could end up the primary back by season's end.
Rodgers played just five games for the Bears last year before landing on IR with a broken arm. The five-year veteran, who is only 26, was re-signed to a one-year deal this off-season.
Rodgers is a quality special teams player, which is where his primary value lies, but he's also very adept on 3rd down. He's a quality blocker in pass protection and experienced as a pass catcher. For the Falcons in 2012 and 2013, he combined for 105 catches, 743 receiving yards and 3 TDs. He's a legit weapon out of the backfield.
Before last season's freak injury, Rodgers had missed just one total game his previous four seasons, so injuries aren't a real concern. All he needs to do in training camp is build on his strengths, both on passing downs and on special teams, and Rodgers will easily lock up a roster spot.
And if Langford struggles on 3rd downs, Rodgers will take over as Chicago's primary back in passing situations.
After leading the nation in rushing for Arizona in 2013, Carey has been a bit player for the Bears the last two seasons. The former fourth-round pick has fought hard to keep his roster spot and that won't change this year, especially after the team drafted Howard.
Over the last two years, Carey has played in 25 games, rushing 79 times for 319 yards (4.0 ypc) and 2 TDs, while adding 8 catches for 76 yards and a TD.
Carey doesn't have blazing speed or power, but no one runs with the more ferocity. That goes a long way with head coach John Fox, who is a big Carey fan.
Carey slowly earned more reps on special teams last year, something he had never before done in his football career, and he'll need to continue that effort in training camp. He's a quality runner but his value doesn't go much deeper than that, so he must carve out at least one more role if the Bears are to justify using a roster spot on him.
In 2014, Senorise Perry was a key member of Chicago's special teams. He was a part-time kick returner and a team leader in special teams tackles. He was on pace for the same role in 2015 before a broken foot suffered in the preseason ended his campaign prematurely.
Perry doesn't offer much as a ball carrier and is buried on the depth chart heading into camp. That said, he could still earn a roster spot if he again proves himself in the third phase. It will be an uphill climb for Perry in Bourbonnais.
In terms of players John Fox likes, Paul Lasike is near the top of that list. The former rugby player was signed to Chicago's practice squad last year and has been working with the first team this off-season as the club's primary blocking fullback.
The Bears haven't rostered a throwback fullback since Tyler Clutts in 2011. It's a dying position but one that has a lot of value in a run-first offense, particularly in those critical short-yardage situations.
It's unlikely the team will keep more than four backs on the final 53-man roster, so Lasike really needs to shine over the next six weeks if he's going to convince the coaching staff to keep him.
A tight end while playing for Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Joe Sommers has been converted to fullback for the Bears, a position at which he has very little experience. Sommers is an extreme long shot to make the final roster and must be exceptional in training camp and the preseason just to secure a spot on the practice squad.null