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That was somewhat of an exceptional development, but second- and third-round running backs have a long history of rookie success.
Second-round back Clinton Portis went over 1,800 total yards while scoring 17 touchdowns in 2002. Third-rounder Curtis Martin eclipsed 1,700 yards with 15 touchdowns in 1995. DeMarco Murray rose from the third round to lead all qualified running backs with a 5.5 yards-per-attempt average in 2011 and, just last year, Round 2 selections Kerryon Johnson (5.4) and Nick Chubb (5.2) ranked in the top five in the same category.
In the last six years, second-rounders Eddie Lacy and Jeremy Hill also went over 1,000 rushing yards as rookies, while Le’Veon Bell and Giovani Bernard ascended from Round 2 and totaled 1,000-yard campaigns right off the bat.
Since the turn of the century, four running backs drafted in the second or third round—Portis, Lacy, Kamara and Anthony Thomas from the 2001 Chicago Bears—went on to win Offensive Rookie of the Year awards.
But Kamara did it more recently and, unlike those other three, he made the Pro Bowl in each of his first two seasons. So that ought to be the gold standard for Day 2 running back early-career success.
Who in this year’s running back class has the best shot at experiencing Kamara-like success in the early stages of his career?
There are six candidates, but the one who stands out is Bears third-rounder David Montgomery.
Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press
That doesn’t mean it can’t be second-round Philadelphia Eagles selection Miles Sanders, who excelled at Penn State and has the size (5’11”, 211 lbs) and speed (4.49-second 40-yard dash) you want in a top back. But Sanders started just one season in college and had problems with ball security, and he’s joining an Eagles team that already acquired Jordan Howard to supplement Josh Adams, Wendell Smallwood and Corey Clement.
Memphis product Darrell Henderson was drafted three slots ahead of Montgomery, and he’s one of the most explosive players in this class. But, at 5’8″, he doesn’t have the look of a primary back and he’s joining a Los Angeles Rams backfield that already features reigning Offensive Player of the Year Todd Gurley and impressive backup Malcolm Brown.
The Buffalo Bills drafted Devin Singletary right after Chicago took Montgomery, and the Florida Atlantic product is certainly intriguing after rushing for over 4,200 yards and scoring 67 total touchdowns in three college campaigns. But that came against weaker competition than most of his peers, and the Bills already have LeSean McCoy, Frank Gore and T.J. Yeldon back there.
Damien Harris is coming off a long, successful run at Alabama, but the third-round New England Patriots draft pick may lack the explosiveness to become an every-down NFL back. Regardless, he’ll have trouble proving that assessment wrong as part of an offense that also boasts Sony Michel, James White and Rex Burkhead in the backfield.
And while Alexander Mattison is coming off consecutive big seasons at Boise State, Bleacher Report draft expert Matt Miller sees the final pick of the third round as “a solid backup running back and potential sub-package runner” at the NFL level. And he’ll undoubtedly be the No. 2 option behind Dalvin Cook with the Minnesota Vikings in 2019.
Montgomery’s situation is different. He’s got two stellar seasons under his belt at Iowa State—enough that there are no questions about his sample, but not enough to raise concerns about his college workload. Excelling as both a runner and a receiver, he accumulated over 2,800 scrimmage yards while scoring 24 touchdowns the last two years in the Big 12.
Miller notes that the 21-year-old is “built like a starting running back with thick thighs and big shoulders,” adding that he’s a “fantastic, natural receiver out of the backfield with soft hands.” And while he might not have elite speed—he ran a 4.63-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine before improving that number to a 4.57 at Iowa State’s Pro Day—Miller still sees him as “an immediate NFL starter.”
Sam Monson @PFF_Sam
I mean it. Montgomery broke all PFF records for broken tackles.
His ability to make quick moves just before contact makes him the most elusive RB in the draft https://t.co/Zmtqqk5xXN
“If he gets with the right team,” a scouting director with an AFC team told NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein before the draft, “he’s going to be the best running back to come out of this class and you won’t have to draft him early either.”
The Bears could be the right team, and they didn’t have to draft him early. They traded Howard to Philly in March, leaving pass-catching specialist Tarik Cohen as the only back guaranteed to get significant work out of the backfield in 2019. And while Cohen will surely be the center of attention at that position to start the year, he’s received double-digit carries just four times in two pro seasons.
At 5’6″, 181 pounds, Cohen probably lacks the makeup of an every-down back, which means Montgomery might only have to beat out free-agent addition Mike Davis in order to land the key role.
Davis has been in the league for four years, and while the 2015 fourth-round pick is coming off his strongest season yet as a member of the Seattle Seahawks, his 2018 sample is small and his career yards-per-attempt average is a measly 3.7. He’s also a violent runner with a streaky injury history.
The Bears probably wouldn’t have traded up 14 slots to use their first 2019 draft pick on Montgomery if they didn’t believe in his potential to contribute immediately, especially considering that the defending NFC North champions have to be in win-now mode following a breakout season.
The two-time first-team All-Big 12 back has been roundly praised for his exceptional contact balance and strength, as well as his ability and willingness to overpower defenders between the tackles.
And that’s exactly what the Bears were looking for.
Their words, not mine.
Bears general manager Ryan Pace added, per JJ Stankevitz of NBC Sports Chicago, that the 5’10”, 222-pounder is “everything you look for in a running back, starting with his instincts, his vision, his ability to make people miss. He’s just a well-rounded player. Good hands. He fits the offense very well.”
Meanwhile, Nagy went on to compare his newest offensive toy to aforementioned Day 2 success story Kareem Hunt, who excelled as a rookie under Nagy’s tutelage with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2017.
“You look at them and the size of them, you see how they run between the tackles,” he said. “They’re physical. They run angry, both of them.”
Bears fans would probably be just as thrilled with a Hunt-like impact on the field as they would with a Kamara-type rookie season from Montgomery.
Regardless, it’s easy to see why Montgomery has a strong chance to become the league’s next great Day 2 back.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.