A line has often been drawn between David Montgomery and Kareem Hunt, with the Bears’ third-round pick’s current and former coaches making that favorable skillset comparison. Both have similar running styles, both are adept pass-catchers, both were third round picks, both played for the same coaching staff in college, etc.
“There are some clips that you can go back and forth and watch and say man, (Montgomery) kind of reminds me of Kareem," Iowa State offensive coordinator Tom Manning said. "And you go back to cuts from (Hunt) too and you’re like man, that’s kind of strange, it looks a little like David there in that sense. They’re different, but I do think there are some similarities.”
The Montgomery-to-Hunt comparison carries with it lofty expectations. Hunt’s dynamic rookie year — under the watch of then-Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy — saw him gain a league-leading 1,327 yards on 272 carries (4.9 yards per attempt) with eight touchdowns, as well as catch 53 passes for 455 yards with three touchdowns. That level of production is the dream scenario for the Bears with Montgomery.
Hunt’s rookie year was, clearly, well above average. But how much above average was it? That was the question this article set out to answer. We wanted to build a baseline for what Montgomery’s rookie expectations should be. What it turned into was a dive into how all 257 rookie running backs who were on a 53-man roster in the last seven seasons fared, from Saquon Barkley to Taquan Mizzell.
We’ll start here: Only running backs whose rookie seasons fell from 2012-2018 were included, given 2012 was the first draft conducted under the league’s new collective bargaining agreement. Plus, it’s recent enough to account for the NFL’s gradual (but hardly total) shift away from placing a high value on running backs.
Receiving stats weren’t taken into account here, given how different offenses use different running backs in the receiving game — and how the Bears can reasonably expect Montgomery to be an above-average pass-catcher as a rookie. So only running statistics were used, which also hold the most importance for the 2019 Bears after Jordan Howard’s uneven 2018 season.
Also, compiling these numbers wouldn't have been possible without the essential Pro Football Reference Play Index.
Beginning with a wide lens, the average production for a rookie running back over the last seven years — drafted or undrafted — is 56 carries for 243 yards (4.3 yards per attempt) with 1 1/2 touchdowns. But that’s not a totally useful measuring stick, given it includes 121 undrafted free agents, and 47 of those UDFAs didn’t receive a single carry in their rookie seasons.
The 136 running backs who were drafted from 2012-2018 have a meatier average: 88 carries, 371 yards, 4.2 yards per carry, 2 1/2 touchdowns. Or, another way: That’s about a third of Howard’s 2018 totals (250 carries, 935 yards, 9 touchdowns) while improving his average yards per carry by a half yard.
Drilling deeper: Third round running backs — 18 players, highlighted by Hunt — put together an average season of 108 attempts, 473 yards (4.4 yards per attempt) and 2.9 touchdowns. That feels like a good starting point for Montgomery, especially if he’s being used as part of a time-share with Mike Davis and Tarik Cohen.
Perhaps something closer to what Arizona’s David Johnson did his rookie year is better, adding a few more carries and removing a couple of touchdowns (125 carries, 581 yards, 4.7 yards per carry, 8 touchdowns). If that’s what Montgomery winds up doing in 2019, it’ll be an improvement over Howard — and an even more pronounced one if Davis winds up being effective, too.
What about Kerrith Whyte Jr.?
The thought here is we’ll see Whyte battle with Mizzell in the coming weeks and months for a roster spot that carries with it a small role in Nagy’s offense (Mizzell, for all the consternation about him, only played 6.5 percent of the Bears’ offensive snaps in 2018). He’s not the first, second or third option, but as a speedy change-of-pace guy he does carry some intrigue as another weapon in Nagy’s arsenal.
It’s rare for seventh round running backs to make much of an impact on the ground their rookie years, with the Eagles’ Bryce Brown having the best season not only in this timespan, but in the last 20 years, with 564 yards on 115 carries (4.9 yards/attempt) with four touchdowns in 2012. Only four of the 18 seventh round running backs in the last seven seasons have averaged more than four yards per carry.
Ryan Pace has picked a running back in the third round (Montgomery), fourth round twice (Cohen, Jeremy Langford), fifth round (Howard) and seventh round (Whyte) during his five years as Bears’ general manager. The three guys who’ve played — Langford, Howard, Cohen — were all rookie-year successes, to varying extents: Howard’s 1,313 yards in 2016 are the sixth-most for a rookie running back since 2012; only two fourth-round picks in the same timespan rushed for more yards than Langford’s 537 in 2015 (Andre Williams, Samaje Perine). Cohen’s impact, of course, goes beyond his on-the-ground production.
The point here being that Pace has a track record of finding productive mid-round running backs, even if we’re only talking about three players here. That’s a good skill for a general manager to have; plenty smart observers consider it wasteful to use a first round pick on a running back, let alone a top 10 selection, which Pace had in his first four drafts.
Naturally, though, it’s easier to find an immediately productive running back earlier in the draft than later. But that there have been standout players to come from nearly every round of the draft (and from the undrafted free agent pool) bolsters the compelling case for not using high picks on running backs. The round-by-round averages are:
First round (11 players): 212 attempts, 934 yards, 4.4 YPC, 7.4 TDs
Best season: Ezekiel Elliott (322 attempts, 1,631 yards, 5.1 YPC, 15 TDs)
Second round (19 players): 135 attempts, 572 yards, 4.2 YPC, 4.2 TDs
Best season: Jeremy Hill (222 attempts, 1,124 yards, 5.1 YPC, 9 TDs)
Third round (18 players): 108 attempts, 473 yards, 4.4 YPC, 2.9 TDs
Best season: Kareem Hunt (272 attempts, 1,327 yards, 4.9 YPC, 8 TDs)
Fourth round (26 players): 82 attempts, 312 yards, 3.8 YPC, 1.9 TDs
Best season: Andre Williams (217 attempts, 721 yards, 3.3 YPC, 7 TDs)
— Includes 1 player who did not receive a carry
Fifth round (22 players): 71 attempts, 310 yards, 4.4 YPC, 1.8 TDs
Best season: Jordan Howard (252 attempts, 1,313 yards, 5.2 YPC, 6 TDs
— Includes 2 players who did not receive a carry
Sixth round (23 players): 43 attempts, 183 yards, 4.3 YPC, 1.0 TDs
Best season: Alfred Morris (335 attempts, 1,613 yards, 4.8 YPC, 13 TDs)
— Includes 6 players who did not receive a carry
Seventh round (18 players): 28 attempts, 109 yards, 3.9 YPC, 0.6 TDs
Best season: Bryce Brown (115 attempts, 564 yards, 4.9 YPC, 4 TDs)
— Includes 5 players who did not a receive a carry
Undrafted free agent average (121 players): 20 attempts, 88 yards, 4.4 YPC, 0.5 TDs
Best season: Phillip Lindsay (192 carries, 1,037 yards, 5.4 YPC, 9 TDs)
— Includes 47 players who did not receive a carry
If you want a look at the full, raw data, click here.
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