The Value of David Montgomery: Volume I, Run Game

| January 31st, 2023

After four productive years in Chicago, David Montgomery is now a free agent, which leaves the Bears in the difficult situation of trying to figure out how much they are willing to pay to keep him around. On the surface, he has the case to command a sizable contract. Since entering the NFL, Montgomery has 915 carries (6th in NFL) for 3,609 yards (10th) and 26 rushing touchdowns (15th). Montgomery has also contributed 155 receptions for 1,240 yards and 4 touchdowns, bringing his rookie contract totals to an impressive 4,849 yards from scrimmage and 30 TDs.

Of course, volume stats don’t tell the full story, so this week I want to take a closer look at David Montgomery’s performance to see if we can get a better idea of how good he is, and thus how large of a contract he might be worth. We’ll start today by looking at his contributions in the run game, follow-up tomorrow with a look at his role in the passing game, and finish with an examination of what a realistic free agent contract could look like.

Advanced Rushing Statistics

Volume stats are nice, but to really understand a player’s value, we need to examine their efficiency. Thankfully, we have a whole host of data available to us, including a number of advanced statistics.

Before we look at the data, I want to mention that RYOE is Rushing Yards Over Expected, which is 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. RYOE % is then the % of carries where a back exceeds the expected rushing yards.

The table below shows how Montgomery fared in a host of advanced rushing statistics compared to 48 running backs with at least 90 carries in 2022. Khalil Herbert’s statistics are also shown for good measure. All RYOE stats are pulled from Next Gen Stats, while yards before run, after run, and broken tackles are from Pro Football Reference. Any values in the top 25% (top 12) are highlighted in green, while those in the bottom 25% are in red.

A few thoughts:

  • Look at all that red – Montgomery is a bad runner. I caught a lot of pushback for pointing this out last offseason, but it remained true in 2022 even as the Bears fielded one of the NFL’s top rushing attacks.
    • This can’t be blamed on facing too many stacked boxes, as Montgomery saw 8 or more defenders in the box only slightly more than average, and the exact same amount as Khalil Herbert.
    • Montgomery’s main issue is a lack of speed. This allows defenders to get to him more quickly than other running backs, which explains his low yards before contact value.
    • Montgomery is good at breaking tackles, but doesn’t turn that into as many yards after contact as you would like (again because he’s not fast enough), so overall he’s a very inefficient runner.
    • The lack of speed also shows up in explosive runs. I’ve been tracking those for years, as there is a strong relationship between producing explosive plays and scoring points, Montgomery routinely struggles here. He produced only 3 explosive runs (15+ yard gain) in 2022; that’s an explosive carry every 67 runs! An average running back produced explosive carries roughly every 22 runs, which is 3x more often than Montgomery.
  • Khalil Herbert, on the other hand, was one of the best runners in the NFL in 2022. He was among the league leaders in the majority of advanced rushing categories.

Neutral Situations

Based on prior Twitter interactions, many Bears fans get upset at the claim that Montgomery is a bad runner. In response, they often make several claims about why his statistics look bad, and don’t capture his true ability. So now I want to look at some of those ideas to see if the data supports them.

The first claim I routinely get is that Montgomery is hurt by being asked to do a significant amount of short-yardage and goal-line work, where just gaining 1-2 yards is a good outcome even though it looks bad in most efficiency metrics. In order to remove those situations, I looked at more neutral contexts to see how Montgomery fared there. The table below looks only at carries on 1st or 2nd down in the first 3 quarters between the 10 yard lines, thus removing any instances where down and distance or game script should heavily factor in. All statistics were compiled using Pro Football Reference’s Game Play Finder.

A few thoughts:

  • I split this by run direction to more directly compare, since runs to different areas typically have different yardage expectations. This also removes any argument that Montgomery’s stats are hurt by being asked to do a lot of carries up the middle, as his % there was lower than both Herbert and the NFL as a whole.
  • Here you can clearly see that Montgomery is very inefficient running the ball in neutral situations. Again, we now have four full seasons of proof showing us very clearly that he is a bad runner by NFL standards. This should not be a surprise.
  • I find it interesting that the Bears consistently run the ball significantly more to the left than the right. That must be a preference based on personnel, and I will be watching to see if it continues in 2023.

Consistent Gains

Of course, yards/attempt can be skewed by a few explosive runs, which is an area where Montgomery really struggles due to lack of speed. Some also argue that Montgomery is hurt by lacking those top-end runs, but consistently picks up intermediate yardage. The graph below keeps the same neutral situation filters (1st/2nd down, 1st 3 quarters, between the 10-yard lines) to see if the evidence backs that up.

As you can see, the idea of Montgomery regularly picking up medium gains doesn’t hold up to a closer inspection. Instead, he has a very high amount of runs that go for three yards or less, which again makes sense given how slow he is; defenders can get to him more quickly than faster backs. No matter how you parse the data, the answer is the same: David Montgomery is a bad runner by NFL standards. The evidence for this is overwhelming at this point.

On the other hand, Khalil Herbert once again looks great here. He was phenomenal at avoiding negative runs and instead produce medium gains (4-6 yards) and big plays (11+ yards) at well above-average rates. He’s a really good runner.

To further illustrate the difference between Herbert and Montgomery as runners, we could look at Expected Points Added, or EPA. This looks at the expected points for a team based on historical trends for down, distance, and location both before and after a play. For a very simple example, if you were expected to score 3.5 points on a drive before a play and then 4.5 points after the play, that play added 1 expected point. Over the course of their neutral situation carries on the season, Khalil Herbert added 9.21 expected points for the Bears, while David Montgomery added -7.33 expected points. That’s right – handing Montgomery the ball as much as the Bears did actually cost their offense points.

Short Yardage

Of course, not all runs come in neutral situations, and some people have argued that David Montgomery’s main running value comes from his ability to reliably pick up tough yards when they are needed. In order to evaluate that claim, I looked at runs on 3rd or 4th down where a team only needed to gain 1-2 yards. That is a very specific situation, and thus a small sample size; if you look only at 2022, it gives 12 carries for Montgomery and 4 for Herbert. In order to get a larger sample, I looked at 2021 and 2022, which brings Montgomery to 31 runs and Herbert to 9. That’s still not great, but it’s the best I can do since that’s as long as Herbert has been in the NFL.

I don’t want to put too much weight into a small sample size, so I’m not going to say Khalil Herbert is a great short-yardage runner or anything like that. David Montgomery is fine here, but there’s no evidence he excels at it, or that he’s any better (or worse) than what the Bears already have in Khalil Herbert.

For a bit more context on Montgomery, and to remove QB sneaks from the equation, there are 24 running backs with at least 20 attempts on 3rd or 4th and 1-2 yards to go since 2021. They have converted 67% of the time, and Montgomery’s 68% ranks 11th of 24. Again, he’s fine here, but there’s nothing to suggest he’s exceptionally good in short yardage.

Wrap Up

David Montgomery is not a good runner. That was clear last offseason, and it’s even more clear now. You can’t even use the excuse anymore that he’s been stuck in a bad running offense, since the Bears had one of the best rushing offenses in the NFL this year. He simply is not good enough to be a high volume running back in the NFL. If he insists on having that role, then the Bears should thank him for his service and allow him to find another team.

Tomorrow, a look at Montgomery in the passing attack.

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