With Matt Forte out of the mix in Chicago, Jeremy Langford currently sits atop the Bears running back depth chart. The changing of the guard has Langford’s early-offseason average draft position hovering around 24th overall. The promotion certainly boosts Langford’s fantasy appeal, but has it gone too far?
The answer is unequivocally yes.
Allow me explain why Langford should be on your avoid list in 2016.
1. He is an inefficient runner
Langford racked up 148 carries as a rookie, but converted those attempts into 537 yards. That 3.6 yards per carry was fourth-worst among 44 running backs who carried the ball at least 100 times.
YPC can sometimes be misleading, so allow me to dig deeper:
A study I did a few weeks back showed that Langford averaged 2.7 YPC against base defenses, which was worst in the NFL. His poor overall YPC came despite facing a defensive set with five or more defensive backs on 63 percent of his carries. That’s the ninth-highest mark among backs who carried the ball at least 80 times.
Incredibly, Langford forced only seven missed tackles. No back who carried the ball at least 88 times had fewer. Among our aforementioned 44 backs with at least 100 attempts, Langford’s 0.5 missed tackle rate was easily lowest. Our “Elusive Rating” stat analyzes a runner's success beyond the point of being helped by his blockers. Langford’s 10.3 rating (which includes three forced miss tackles as a receiver) ranks dead last among 51 qualified backs.
It gets worse. Langford was also terrible brushing off defenders. He averaged 1.8 yards after contact per attempt, which was worst among our sample of 100 running backs.
So you say you saw him make a few big plays, eh? Not exactly. Langford managed only two runs of 15-plus yards. That 7.3 rate was worst at the position.
Many immediately point to Chicago’s offensive line as culprit, but our team's analysis suggests that the Bears struggled with pass blocking, not with paving lanes for their runners. They rank Chicago’s pass blocking 23rd and its run blocking as fourth-best in the NFL last season.
Not a believer in the PFF ratings? The offensive line excuse still doesn’t explain why Forte’s production was much better than what we saw from Langford. Forte averaged 4.1 YPC, including 2.2 after contact. He forced 24 missed tackles for a rate of 0.11. His elusive rating (24.9) and 15-plus-yard run percentage (13.7) were both uninspiring, but still well ahead of Langford. Albeit on a small sample, Ka’Deem Carey was also more efficient than Langford.
Frankly, so was the entire league.
2. He’s a poor receiver
One area where the general consensus seems to think Langford excelled is as a receiver. Considering he was limited to 22 receptions as a rookie, this doesn’t make a ton of sense. Langford’s 40 targets were 29th most at the position, yet his eight drops were most. His 26.67 percent drop rate was worst in the NFL among 57 qualified backs. For perspective, Danny Woodhead and Theo Riddick tied for the position lead with 80 receptions each and they combined for six drops. Langford, who caught 22 passes, dropped eight on his own.
Langford did average a healthy 12.7 yards per reception, which ranked fifth at the position, but his 4.7 average depth of target ranked highest. Handling down-field targets certainly added to Langford’s fantasy appeal, but his ineffectiveness offset the usage.
3. He’s a poor blocker
According to our analysts, exactly 134 running backs were on the field for at least one pass play last season. Langford’s pass blocking grade ranked 128th among those backs. His pass blocking efficiency rating of 84.3 rating was third-worst among qualified backs.
4. Touchdown Dependency
In some ways, this section works in Langford’s favor, but it’s noteworthy nonetheless.
Despite his horrendous efficiency, Langford still finished 24th among running backs in fantasy points (30th in PPR). This was primarily the result of a three-game stretch in which Forte sat out with an injury. During the three weeks, Langford finished sixth, first, and 19th in fantasy points among running backs. He scored the most fantasy points at the position during the stretch despite averaging 3.3 yards per carry and forcing only two missed tackles on 51 tries. The game changer was Langford scoring four of his seven rookie-season touchdowns during the span.
Of those seven scores, six were of the rushing variety. Langford scored on all four of his attempts from the opponent’s 1 yard line, which is very impressive, but also very unsustainable. For perspective, the league conversion rate from 1 yard out is 53 percent. Langford’s other two rushing scores came from 2 and 6 yards out. He failed to score on 139 attempts from outside the opponent’s 6 yard line. Langford’s lone receiving touchdown came on an 88-yard catch-and-run against St. Louis in which he was untouched. He failed to score on his other 40 targets despite some decent opportunity, including three end zone targets (only Woodhead had more).
All in all, Langford’s opportunity suggests he should’ve had around seven touchdowns and that’s exactly where he was at.
I should add that Langford finished 14th among backs in fantasy points during Forte’s first game back from injury, but ranked no better than 29th during the final five weeks of the season. Forte handled nine more carries and saw six more targets than Langford, but managed to rank third among backs during the span.
5. None of the former should be a surprise
Talented players fall on draft day for a variety of reasons, but Langford was considered by the majority to be a mid-round talent without any injury/off-field red flags. The scouting reports suggested there were some things to like (tough, productive runner), but there were concerns about his power running and elusiveness, and he struggled as both as receiver and a pass blocker at Michigan State. Overall, Langford was considered a decent prospect and projected as a backup or committee player at the NFL level. There’s a reason he wasn’t drafted until Day 3 and he did nothing as a rookie to suggest draftniks were too low on him.
Once a player has settled in at the professional level, his draft round doesn’t have a ton of relevance. But, Langford hasn’t solidified himself just yet, so a quick history lesson is worthwhile. Over the past 10 seasons, there have been 114 instances of a running back putting up at least 180 fantasy points. This is a relevant number because it’s roughly the number of points you need to reach the Top 10 at the position in non-PPR formats. Considering Langford is currently being drafted right around 10th at the position, his investors are obviously aiming for a number in this area.
Of those 114 instances, only nine (eight percent) have been players picked in the fourth round (as Langford was). This includes Devonta Freeman in 2015 and Lamar Miller each of the past two years. It’s significantly more likely that fantasy stars would have been drafted in the earlier rounds. The first (49, 43 percent), second (23, 20 percent) and third (17, 15 percent) rounds have been responsible for nearly 80 percent of our 180-point scorers since 2006. The fifth, sixth and seventh round have combined for seven instances (seven percent) and nine of the players (eight percent) were undrafted.
Digging deeper, over the past 10 years, 13 rookie running backs have carried the ball at least 140 times but averaged fewer than 3.8 yards per carry. Here is that list:
Injuries aside, Bell and Bush panned out, but that’s about it. And both were selected during the first two rounds of the draft. The jury remains out on Gordon, a first-round pick last year, and Jones, a third-rounder who, like Langford, struggled more than many seem to realize as a rookie.
Bell is worth a quick mention because he was a player I was hard on after an inefficient rookie season. Obviously he improved during the following offseason, but it’s worth noting that he was better than Langford in many areas as a rookie, including eluding tackles and post-contact production.
6. John Fox and his RBBC history
As the 2015 season wore on, the Bears shifted to a committee backfield. Many suggested this was Chicago taking a long look at the future (Langford), knowing that the past (Forte) would not be back in 2016. That makes sense, but so does head coach John Fox’s recent history (not to mention the league trend) of relying on a running back by committee. In each year since 2005, at least two of Fox’s running backs have eclipsed 95 carries. That’s not overly significant, but the top back in terms of carries has averaged 219 attempts, the second back 142 and the third 40. The split is 205:119:60 since 2010. These numbers are certainly distorted by injuries, but it’s not hard to find a trend when you look back at DeShaun Foster/Stephen Davis, Foster/DeAngelo Williams, Williams/Jonathan Stewart, Willis McGahee/Knowhon Moreno, C.J. Anderson/Montee Ball/Ronnie Hillman and Forte/Langford. Fox has shown a willingness to lean heavily on one player if he has a clear, lead back, but the goal has been to have depth and options at the position.
I should also mention that, of the backs I just listed, only Forte (2015) and Moreno (2013) eclipsed 34 receptions in a single season.
While on the topic of coaches, it’s worth noting that Adam Gase – Fox’s highly-regarded offensive coordinator during the Denver and Chicago era – is now the head coach in Miami. Although hard to quantify, the loss would figure to have a negative effect on offensive efficiency.
7. Opportunity doesn’t necessarily mean performance.
When it comes to fantasy football, opportunity is king.
An expression I use often. The simple truth is that the best football player in the world can’t accrue fantasy points if he’s standing on the sideline. And the opposite is true as well; a poor football player can have fantasy value simply because he’s racking up touches.
But that expression is significantly more relevant on a week to week basis during the season. On a macro level, when we’re talking season-long or dynasty investment, talent and ability are considerably more important.
Langford simply does not stack up.
This entire article comes with the caveat that Langford very well could make big improvements to his game during the offseason. The fact remains, however, that he did not perform well in pretty much any area as a rookie. Yes, he had a highlight reel play or two. Yes, he was a fantasy asset during the stretch in which Forte missed time. And yes he’s currently in position to start for Chicago come Week 1 of the 2016 season. But let the likes of Joseph Randle, Bishop Sankey, Knile Davis, Roy Helu, DeMarco Murray, C.J. Spiller, Ameer Abdullah, Melvin Gordon, and even Eddie Lacy be an example. Each of these backs was either an early-round or sleeper pick during 2015 fantasy drafts. Each lost his job or saw a reduced role as a product of ineffective play. It happens every season.
Pinpointing fantasy busts is easier said than done, but Langford’s unsightly resume and obscene early-offseason hype makes him a strong candidate to disappoint in 2016.
Follow Mike Clay on Twitter: @MikeClayNFL