Jeremy Langford probably isn't ready for the 2016 football season. Perhaps more accurately, he is probably not ready to be the key player in an offense that needs him to take the next step forward.
While some worry about Langford's 3.63 yards per carry, good for 41st among running backs in the NFL last season, one statistic by itself is little reason for concern. The fact that his 537 total yards are good for a similarly-uninspiring 40th in the league can be explained away by the way he was not really the focal point of the Bears' rushing attack last year. Harder to dismiss is the fact that under 19% of his rushing plays went for first downs last year (33rd among running backs). On the other hand, last year only 21.1% of Matt Forte's rushing attempts went for first downs, so perhaps that suggests that some of Langford's struggles can be blamed on the offensive line.
One of Football Outsider's more useful stats is the Running Back Success Rate statistic. Rather than calculating yards per carry directly, they adjust based on the situation and consider whether or not a run makes adequate progress toward a first down. While they also take into consideration when in the game a run takes place, "In general, a play counts as a "hit" if it gains 40% of yards on first down, 60% of yards on second down, and 100% of yards on third down." Langford's success rate was 47%, good for 20th in the league. On the other hand, Matt Forte's success rate was only 48%, giving him the 17th-best outcome in the league. So, while Langford struggled a little on the ground, his struggles have other explanations. His rushing game seems to be developing nicely, if not spectacularly.
What is more troubling, at least to me, than his middling production as a traditional running back are his greater limitations in the passing game. As a receiving weapon, Forte had a DVOA of +23.1% (11th in the NFL among qualifying running backs). Langford, on the other hand, had a DVOA of -6.7% (34th in the NFL). Last year, Langford was tied for the most drops (7) from a running back in the receiving game. Overall, his 16.7% drop percentage was the highest among players with at least 25 targets. Likewise, his 52% overall catch rate is...uninspiring.
Langford's struggles are a concern because Jay Cutler is accustomed to using his running backs as receivers in the passing game. Last year, backs were targeted 106 times out of 519 passing plays. Roughly one-fifth of the passing game went through running backs. Additionally, with the exception of the one year that Mike Tice was the offensive coordinator, that rate is actually fairly typical for the duration of Cutler's time with the Bears. Jay likes throwing to his running backs. Collectively, they provide him with a safety net, and providing that safety net is now primarily the responsibility of Jeremy Langford.
100 of those 106 passes last year were split between Forte and Langford. If Langford had taken over Forte's 58 passes and someone else had taken Langford's share, the difference in catch rate would have knocked 14 catches (and about 135 yards of production) off the total. If Langford had been responsible for all of them, then obviously the difference might be greater. There is a bright side, in that Langford did average more yards per catch when he managed to hang onto the ball. However, that bright side is rather dimmed when a quick check reveals that most of the yards-per-reception advantage goes away when a single 83-yard catch is taken out of the equation.
Another bit of god news is that it is likely that 5th-round pick Jordan Howard will come along quickly. However, it seems unreasonable to hope that he will prove to be an extraordinarily effective threat as a pass-catcher in his first year on the team. Our own EJ Snyder had the following to say:
His hands are not what I'd called "natural" (he looks like he's fighting the ball when he catches it) but they are surprisingly effective.
That's a little promising, but over three years and 32 games in college, he had a total of 24 receptions. He might be able to use his hands effectively with time, and he might be able to learn his role as a pass-catcher, but the Bears cannot depend on him yet. In other words, it is going to be up to Langford to step up. I hope I'm wrong, but I have serious concerns about whether or not Langford is ready yet.