Playing running back is one of the easier on-field jobs in the NFL. If you have the talent, chances are you’ll receive snaps and you’ll eventually make some sort of an impact. The nature of a position with a shorter developmental curve than its peers means any young tailback possesses the means to make something of themselves immediately. There are far less road blocks on this journey. Learn playbook. Get ball. Run with ball. Pass block. Catch ball out of backfield, sometimes. A multitude of responsibilities for one man, but nothing impossible or too strenuous by any stretch.
The Bears are currently blessed with quite the complementary duo. David Montgomery appears to be the classic power, churning back of yesteryear, (save for the Bettis-like stature). Meanwhile Tarik Cohen, a poor 2019 aside, remains one of pro football’s more explosive weapons. But what happens in the event one of these two men needs a breather, or in more extreme circumstances, are forced to miss meaningful time?
This is where 2020 undrafted free agent Artavis Pierce enters the conversation.
Listen well enough, and you’ll see he has something meaningful to say.
The four-year Oregon State contributor flew under the radar for most of his collegiate career. To get the skinny on what Pierce brings to the table in Chicago, I spoke to Building The Dam’s Managing Editor, Marcus Russell. We touched on his understated tenacity, as well as a penchant for the big play, among other trademark Football Guy things.
1. After spending three years as someone’s primary backup, Pierce received more of the lion’s share of the workload last year. Why did his ascent appear to be so slow, how did he fare as more of a complementary player, and how would you describe his final year in the Beaver offense?
Marcus Russell: Surprisingly enough, Artavis Pierce never spent a full season as the lead back in the Beaver offense. He earned carries, but was stuck behind Ryan Nall during his first two seasons (2016-2017) in the pecking order. After Nall went pro Pierce was finally in position to be the lead running back. He exploded out of the gate, but in just the second game of the 2018 season he sustained a freak injury to his left elbow. He subsequently missed four weeks and wasn’t the same for the rest of the year. Instead, true freshman Jermar Jefferson, stole the show and rushed for 1,380 yards and 12 touchdowns. Jefferson’s spectacular season earned him starting running back duties while Pierce served as an overqualified RB2 to start his senior season.
As fate would have it, Pierce ended up getting more carries than anticipated as a senior due to Jefferson being banged up for half the season last year. During his time in Corvallis, Pierce featured as a fantastic running back who put up great numbers despite only averaging about 8.5 carries a game in his career. It can’t be said enough: He was such a consistent presence for Oregon State. Even as someone that wasn’t highly recruited, he found the field fast and had meaningful contributions every year.
2. What does Pierce bring to the table as a tailback? What are his best skills and what are his limitations?
MR: Pierce is an all-around, very good tailback. He’s not small, but he’s not huge. He can catch the ball out of the backfield, he can protect a quarterback, and he rarely loses yards on carries. The unique thing about Pierce is that he doesn’t have many limitations, per se. He’s a high-floor, low-ceiling prospect; he truly does everything well. But he’s not exactly elite at any one aspect. If he had a premier skill, it’d be his breakaway speed. Against Ohio State in 2018, Pierce had respective touchdown runs of 80-yards and 78-yards. Once he got to the second level, he burned through a couple of Ohio State defensive backs who now play on Sundays.
3. You’re a member of the Bears coaching staff. How are you deploying Pierce scheme-wise and situationally to maximize his talents?
MR: It is a crowded running back room for the Bears and the odds of an UDFA making the game day roster is not high. But for the sake of argument let’s say he makes the team. I’d use him strictly as David Montgomery’s back up. He’s not the receiving threat that Tarik Cohen is, but he can move the ball if given carries, and he won’t be a liability as a blocker or release valve for the Bears’ quarterback (whoever that might be). I would use Pierce as a change of pace back. But if Chicago is looking more for someone to pick up the yards at the goal-line or short yardage situations, Ryan Nall might be the better player to utilize.
4. Pierce’s addition to the Bears comes at a coincidental moment where his mentioned former teammate Ryan Nall will also be competing for a final roster spot this summer. What does Pierce have to do to not only get a leg up on Nall this time around, but actually stick with the Bears for the fall?
MR: Nall is going to have a lot of advantages over Pierce. He’s been around the Bears’ organization longer. He will know their plays. He will know the coaches. He will understand his role better. The two running backs are also close in age and skill set. Most Oregon State followers will tell you that Nall actually has a superior profile. But Pierce is an old-school football player. He’s been a running back his entire life and just makes good things happen when he’s on the field. It’ll be difficult for Pierce to leap frog Nall and earn a spot, but it’s not impossible.
5. Now that Pierce’s time with Oregon State is over, what is one story or moment that you’ll most remember that epitomizes his time with the Beavers, and who he is as a player and person?
MR: Most Beaver fans will point to that Ohio State game in 2018. Pierce had a mere 11 carries (because Oregon State fell behind so quickly), but he torched the Buckeyes for 168 yards and two long touchdown runs. The story and moment I’ll always remember is when he lost his starting job to a true freshman (Jermar Jefferson). Instead of deciding to be a graduate transfer, he stuck with the Beavers and was rewarded with a great senior year. Pierce endured a lot of punishment at Oregon State. The coach that recruited him quit mid-season, an abundance of turnover of position coaches and offensive coordinators, and he was a long ways from home (Florida). But through it all, Pierce remained with the football program through difficult times. That speaks volumes of his character.
Follow Marcus on Twitter @Marcus_Russell2 and read his work at Building The Dam.
Follow Robert on Twitter @RobertZeglinski. You can’t take a picture of this, it’s already gone.