When John Fox was turning the Carolina Panthers into a Super Bowl team and respectable annual contender in the NFC South, he did it not only with a committee approach to his running backs, but also significantly changing them on a near-yearly basis. In his first four Carolina seasons, Fox had four different leading rushers, only one gaining more than 900 yards, for teams that reached a Super Bowl and NFC Championship game over those four years.
The Bears made annual pilgrimages into free agency and the draft looking for Matt Forte understudies, with only marginal success. Forte got his 1,000-or-so yards and the Bears missed the playoffs seven of his eight seasons.
The organization used fourth-round picks in 2014 (Ka’Deem Carey) and 2015 (Jeremy Langford) not only to staff the No. 2 position, but also in hopes of staffing for the future. The 2015 season was perhaps a preview, with Langford rushing for 537 yards and Carey 159, with the two combining for 10 touchdowns rushing and receiving. The Bears ran the ball on nearly 46 percent of their snaps and want to push that rate closer to 50-50 under coordinator Dowell Loggains.
If there is a concern, it is that Carey and Langford averaged just 3.6 yards per carry. The only teams reaching the 2015 playoffs with their top rushers averaging less than 4 yards per carry were Houston and Washington – both blown out at home by wild-card teams.
The Bears stepped away from Forte, making no contract offer to a player who would have been asked to go from a featured back to being one of a committee. Forte said all the right things about not needing to play every play but accepting a reduced role is only occasionally a workable scenario for a running back at age 30 who has played in the range of 90 percent of snaps his entire career.
Accordingly, the organization continued to invest in running backs, investing a fifth-round pick this year in Jordan Howard out of Indiana, a 230-pound power back with some speed (4.59 in the 40) and about 20 pounds more mass than either Carey or Langford.
For his part, Langford made his pass-catching a focus this offseason after some extremely costly drops last year.
The Bears also re-signed diminutive Jacquizz Rodgers, who was lost to IR with an elbow injury in game five but provides an all-around back with roles on special teams.
Without depth at tight end, the offense may move toward a traditional fullback, with veteran Paul Lasike signed to a futures contract this offseason.
RB Jeremy Langford/Ka’Deem Carey
Paul Lasike (FB)
3 questions camp will begin to answer…
…Do the Bears have a quality third-down back?
Howard gives the offense a short-yardage/goal-line hammer, but none of their current backs have distinguished themselves as a receiver, which was a given with Forte and axiomatic to a successful offense. Langford’s hands were shaky last year and having Jay Cutler’s confidence is critical.
…How safe is Jay Cutler against blitzes?
Carey has worked since his first training camp on pass protection, and Langford did not distinguish himself with consistency, which coaches are demanding in blitz pickup, particularly for whoever aspires to be the third-down back.
…Will the offense tilt back toward a fullback paired with a tailback?
Fullbacks provide a blocking force for tailbacks and allies for offensive linemen. Forte found his escort hammer in Tyler Clutts, now in Dallas and who has made a career of taking care of his ballcarriers. The Bears may want a more physical running game but fullback has been a declining position in the NFL and they are not especially easy to find.