Bears running back David Montgomery has one year remaining on his rookie contract, meaning he is eligible for an early extension if the Bears want to give him one. After George McCaskey specifically praised Montgomery and linebacker Roquan Smith (who is also looking to get paid this offseason) at his end of season press conference in January, many fans speculated that both were about to get paid.
On the surface, an extension could make sense for Montgomery. Since entering the NFL in 2019, he is 6th in the league in carries, 9th in rushing yards, and 12th in rushing touchdowns. But those are volume stats and say nothing about Montgomery beyond his ability to stay healthy and handle a heavy workload. Today I want to take a closer look at Montgomery’s efficiency to see if he is a good running back or just a running back who gets a lot of touches.
Let’s start with a general look at Montgomery’s overall efficiency, measured both in yards/carry and rush yards over expectation/carry (RYOE/carry).
RYOE/carry is a new stat in the last few years, and it’s based on both the position and the movement of all 22 players on the field at the time of handoff. Basically, it projects how many yards an average NFL running back would get in a given carry based on historical data, and then compares how that specific running back did on that play. All RYOE/carry stats are pulled from Tej Seth’s website mfbanalytics.
The table below shows Montgomery’s yards/carry and RYOE/expectation marks for all three of his NFL seasons. It also compares him to the average NFL running back each season, looking only at backs who get 150 or more carries on the year (close to 1/team, so roughly starting NFL running backs).
A few thoughts:
- As you can see, Montgomery has not generally been very efficient. He ranks in the bottom half of all starting running backs in both yards/carry and RYOE/carry in all three seasons.
- You could try to explain away a poor yards/carry mark by pointing out that Chicago’s offensive line, offensive scheme, and offense as a whole have been bad for Montgomery’s career. Those are fair points, which is why I didn’t just want to look at his yards/carry mark when evaluating Montgomery. If that is bad but his underlying metrics are good, it would indicate a good running back trapped in a bad offense.
- RYOE, however, doesn’t support that idea. This stat in particular is intended to isolate the running back’s performance, since the expected yards mark takes into consideration where every other player (both offense and defense) is at the time of handoff, as well as where they’re moving. Therefore, this should remove scheme and the caliber of talent around you from being a significant factor. Consistently underperforming your RYOE mark is an indication of a below-average running back.
Explosion and Consistency
It feels weird to call David Montgomery a below-average running back. Just writing that is jarring. After all, we’ve spent three years cheering for him and loving how he runs. So maybe there’s something else out there that can highlight what Montgomery is good at.
With that goal in mind, I looked next at how explosive and consistent Montgomery is. Let me briefly explain the stats for both of these:
- Carries/explosive carry: how many times did Montgomery need to carry the ball to pick up an explosive run (gain of 15 or more yards)? Explosive play data comes from Pro Football Reference’s Game Play Finder.
- Success rate: this takes down and distance situation into account and measures how consistently a RB helps the offense stay ahead of the chains. A 1-yard run on 3rd and 1 is great, while a 1-yard run on 1st and 10 is bad, so this doesn’t count them the same. The exact parameters of what counts as a success are listed here, but generally this considers every play either a success or failure, with no other distinction. Such an approach completely removes any sort of explosiveness from the equation and should make a consistent chain-mover who doesn’t produce big plays look good. Success rates are pulled from Sharp Football.
Once again, the table below shows Montgomery’s stats for each year of his career, as well as how he ranked in each category compared to other NFL RBs with 150+ carries that year.
A few thoughts:
- It’s not surprising to see Montgomery rank so poorly in explosive plays. A lack of top-end speed was the biggest knock on him coming out of college, and we definitely see it show up here. This is a real problem since there is such a strong relationship between producing explosive plays and scoring points.
- Given Montgomery’s profile, you might expect him to do better in success rate, which removes any explosiveness from the equation. If you’re a steady but not overly flashy player, you should consistently help the offense stay ahead of the chains, but Montgomery has consistently performed poorly in this metric as well.
I’ve now looked at four key stats for running backs without finding a single one where Montgomery is even average. That honestly threw me off; I think of Montgomery as a good but not great running back, but the data so far is saying pretty clearly that’s not the case.
If you think of one thing Montgomery does well, it’s breaking tackles. So surely, he must finish his runs well, picking up plenty of yards after contact, right? The table below shows Montgomery’s stats in those categories compared to his peers with 150+ carries for each season in his career. All data comes from Pro Football Reference.
A few thoughts:
- Here we finally find something Montgomery is good at. He’s above average at breaking tackles in all 3 seasons, and right up at the top of the NFL in 2 of his 3 years.
- One problem though: that doesn’t translate to yards after contact (YAC), where Montgomery ranks below average in 2 of his 3 seasons.
- How can you break tackles but not pick up YAC? Keep in mind Montgomery is not all that fast to begin with. Breaking tackles likely slows him down even more, allowing other defenders to catch up and bring him down without him gaining as many extra yards as you would hope.
Upon looking at things on a season-by-season basis, it looks like Montgomery is good at breaking tackles but sub-par at pretty much everything else. One last thing I was curious to explore: maybe there’s something in the data that helps him stand out a little better when you look at all three seasons together, where he’s fairly consistent and other guys are up and down in individual seasons.
The table below shows the same stats from the previous 3 tables above, but looking cumulatively at 2019-21, and only considering RBs with 450+ total carries (at least 150/season on average). I also threw in carries/1st down and carries/TD, to see if Montgomery got abnormally high short-yardage/goal-line usage that might hurt his other statistics.
This paints the exact same picture as we’ve seen so far. Montgomery is really good at breaking tackles but has performed poorly in literally every other statistic.
How, then, do you evaluate Montgomery as an NFL running back? You can make arguments that the offense has hurt him – it certainly hasn’t done him any favors – but a stat like RYOE/carry is supposed to remove much of that from the equation, and Montgomery performs poorly there too.
It would be reasonable to look at this data and conclude that David Montgomery is a below-average NFL running back. There’s now a very large sample size of 714 carries supporting that claim. I don’t know if I’m willing to make that claim (at least not publicly – my Twitter notifications every time I even say he’s not particularly special make it very clear Bears fans love Montgomery), but I won’t argue against you if you want to make it.
If you want to put a lot of weight in the poor surroundings holding him down, then I think the nicest claim you could make right now is that Montgomery is a replacement-level back. At the very least, he’s proven clearly that he will be scheme-dependent to produce in an efficient manner, and that means he’s not worth paying big money to on a second contract. This is doubly true since NFL running backs normally have short shelf lives, so Montgomery is unlikely to improve as he ages. From the end of season press conference comments, it’s pretty clear George McCaskey loves Montgomery and wants to see him stick around, so this will be a good first test for new general manager Ryan Poles. Handing Montgomery a big extension this offseason would be an early sign that he’s not the right man for the job (at least in my view).
In terms of 2022, I’d argue the Bears should look to limit Montgomery’s load. Somebody this inefficient is hurting the offense if they are on the field for 75% of snaps and getting a huge volume of touches, which has been Montgomery’s role for the last two years. Offenses need to produce explosive plays, and Montgomery doesn’t do that, so they would do well to find a back who can and make this more of a time share. I would also argue that their long list of roster needs, and short list of draft picks might combine to make it such that trading Montgomery (assuming another team just looks at the volume and is willing to give up something for him) brings them more value than having Montgomery on the roster for 2022, but I’ll be shocked if the Bears do that simply because of McCaskey’s comments about him.