Can Jeremy Langford Be a Workhorse Running Back for the Chicago Bears?
The Chicago Bears have cycled backup running backs behind Matt Forte for what seems like a decade now, but Forte's health and success has made most of them irrelevant.
In his seven full seasons since 2008, Forte has failed to play 16 games just twice: 12 games in 2011 and 15 in 2012. He had secured at least 200 carries in each of those seven years, and with 136 carries through seven games this year, he was well on pace to hit that mark again.
He had also failed to hit 70 targets just once in that span (59 in 2012).
Whether it was Chester Taylor, Kahlil Bell, Marion Barber, or Michael Bush nipping at his carries and touchdown totals, Forte had remained at the top of Chicago's depth chart for more than half a decade.
But with the MCL injury he sustained in Week 8, his stranglehold on the Bears' backfield duties is in question for Week 9 and beyond. He could return soon, of course, because the injury isn't a season-ender, but it's at least fair to ask a bigger question for now.
Is Jeremy Langford the man to dethrone Forte for good?
Okay, sure, "dethroning" is probably not the right wording, as Forte surely hasn't played himself out of the job (more on that later), but Langford did require a fourth-round draft pick this season for Chicago. That's not elite draft capital by any means, but Langford's college campaign more than justified it.
Langford spent four seasons at Michigan State but saw no offensive touches as a freshman (in 2011) and got just nine as a sophomore. Then the Spartans eased him into his role as a junior by throwing 292 carries and 28 receptions his way. He turned those into 1,579 yards from scrimmage and 19 touchdowns.
As a senior, he carried the ball 276 times for 1,522 yards and 22 touchdowns, adding 11 catches for 62 yards.
Such a workload (his 292 carries as a junior tied for 8th in the country in 2013, and his 276 as a senior tied for 11th) may suggest that Langford is a big-bodied back, but that's not the case.
At 6'0" and 208 pounds, Langford ran a 4.42-second 40-yard dash, so he's more of a speed back than a plodder. He compares closely to Tevin Coleman, Lamar Miller, and Bilal Powell in terms of physical measurables.
The smallish back, though, did get work inside the red zone at Michigan State. As a junior, he converted 13 of his 47 red zone totes for touchdowns and another 10 for first downs. As a senior, he saw 53 red zone carries: 15 touchdowns and 8 first downs. For some context, of the 69 backs with at least 30 red zone carries in 2014, his touchdown rate (28.30 percent) ranked 18th, and his combined touchdown plus first down rate (43.40 percent) ranked 31st.
Neither are elite marks, but results are absent of context. The more important part of this is that Langford has an interesting physical profile, given his speed and ability to handle carries.
But can he really replace Forte?
Langford in the NFL
Through seven NFL games, Langford has seen 27 carries for 80 yards and 2 touchdowns. He also has 31 receiving yards on 2 catches (5 targets). Prior to his Week 8 game (46 yards on 12 carries), he had racked up 15 totes in six games.
In terms of our Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics, he was pretty average, though we have to keep in mind how small a sample size 15 carries is.
On those 15 carries, Langford secured a Rushing NEP of -0.32, which ranked 19th among 50 backs with between 10 and 50 carries through Week 7. Per carry (-0.02), he also ranked 19th. A Rushing NEP of -0.02 has been close to the historical average for running backs since 2000; running the ball isn't efficient, so that's why it skews below zero, on average.
An interesting factor, though, is his Rushing Success Rate, which measures the percentage of carries that actually lead to NEP gains. His mark of 60 percent tied him for second in that group. Again, 9 good carries on 15 overall carries is too small to put much stock into, but his NEP scores -- however average they are -- aren't being buoyed by a big play and countless negative plays.
For what it's worth, Forte's Success Rate entering Week 7 (41.27 percent) ranked ninth among 22 backs with at least 75 carries. He was fairly successful at moving the NEP sticks. However, Forte's Rushing NEP of -6.68 ranked 19th, and his per-carry mark (-0.05) ranked 18th.
It's not fair to say that Langford had been better or that, by direct comparison, Forte had been worse than Langford. That's not it. But of other high-volume rushers, Forte hasn't exactly fared well this year on the ground.
Conversely, Forte's Reception NEP (12.70) had ranked 10th among all running backs prior to Week 8, so it's not as if his numbers are all bad.
On 4 targets and 2 catches, Langford produced 2.38 Reception NEP for an elite-if-sustained 0.86 per target. (For context, only seven backs since 2000 were that efficient on a per-target basis while seeing at least 20 targets in a season.)
Week 8 and Beyond
In Langford's largest sample to date (12 carries), he recorded a Rushing NEP of -0.20, according to our initial tallies from numberFire Live. While a negative Rushing NEP isn't necessarily indicative of "bad" play, Langford's metrics still resemble those of an average running back so far in his short career.
Further, the Bears entered Week 8 as the worst team in the NFL, according to our nERD metric, which indicates expected point differential against an average opponent on a neutral field. That doesn't lend itself to positive, run-heavy game scripts for Langford. Then again, that hasn't stopped Forte from racking up fantasy points this season.
In Langford's favor, the Chargers, who the Bears play in Week 9, are a middle-of-the-road squad, per our metrics, but do own one of the worst rushing defenses in the NFL when adjusting for schedule strength.
Langford very realistically could post a solid day in Week 9 for the Bears, but his underlying metrics -- aside from his Success Rate -- don't indicate that he's ready to burst out over a larger sample size. Of course, with the state the Bears are in, trying to give Langford some extra burn while letting Forte sit could be in the cards. As it stands now, there is no timetable for his return.
He's handled big roles in college, he's got some speed and interesting similarities to other promising NFL backs, and most important, he's got a chance at first-team reps against a weak run defense.
Maybe he'll give Chicago some hope -- if only for a week or two.