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Emma: Bears Will Work Their Whole Stable At Running Back

By Chris Emma--

LAKE FOREST, Ill. (CBS) -- Photos of Walter Payton, Gale Sayers and Matt Forte rest atop the Bears' running backs room at Halas Hall and all through the building's corridors, a constant reminder of the team's tradition.

The Bears have a history of great running backs, including some of the game's legends. Names like Payton and Sayers carry incredible prestige, and for the past eight years, the franchise had Forte, the reliable every-down back. Now, the Bears have gone in a different direction by implementing a stable of versatility in the backfield.

This season, the Bears will utilize their entire backfield for carries, something coach John Fox has found success with in previous stops.

Jeremy Langford will serve as the feature back, Jacquizz Rodgers will be the steady veteran with different abilities out of the backfield and Jordan Howard or Ka'Deem Carey can take on the short-yardage role. The Bears will use their weapons situationally.

"It's a luxury to have a committee of backs like that," Bears running backs coach Stan Drayton said in training camp.

Every team would love to have a feature back like Forte who can ideally serve as an every-down back for 16 games. Forte was just that in his Chicago tenure, missing just eight games during his eight years. However, the Bears believed in their youth at running back and let the 30-year-old walk, and he signed with the Jets.

Following a busy offseason, the Bears committed themselves to a new-look backfield, one in which versatility will make the difference.

Langford didn't necessarily force out Forte during his rookie season, but the Bears believe in his potential. Similar to Forte, Langford has that ability to turn downfield seamlessly. Still, Forte was so important to the Bears because he served a purpose on every play, whether it was running the ball, getting open for Jay Cutler on a passing play or staying back for protection.

For his part, Langford has a long way to go in developing his all-around game, which is why the Bears are monitoring his growth while calling upon their entire backfield arsenal.

"Obviously he's way more comfortable now in what we're doing and more comfortable in the speed and strength of our league," Fox said of Langford.

When Langford suffered a foot injury this past weekend, Rodgers stepped in as the backup. Rodgers' role is important for several reasons.

Now entering his sixth NFL season, Rodgers is 26 years old. He has mostly played the role of backup, working behind Michael Turner and Steven Jackson in Atlanta before arriving in Chicago last season. Rodgers has carved out a career with his versatility and by being a key special teams player.

"You got to do something else to be available and get on the field, whether it's covering a kick or doing the dirty work, because nobody wants to do that," Rodgers said. "Everybody wants to play their positions. Special teams are most of the time a deal setter.

"I try to work like a starter. Anything can happen."

Fox referred to Rodgers as "a pro's pro." Cutler said that he's "a consummate pro." He's the steady veteran in among running backs still finding their place.

"Whenever my number is called," said Rodgers, "I'm going to be ready to go."

Look for plenty of Langford and Rodgers out of the Bears' backfield. Fox's offenses have mostly consisted of two feature backs. In 2008, the Fox-led NFC South champion Panthers were led by DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, who combined for 2,348 yards and 28 touchdowns.

Back in 2011, Fox's Broncos had the league's top-ranked rushing attack led by Willis McGahee, Lance Ball, Knowshon Moreno and even quarterback Tim Tebow. In 2008 and 2009, Fox's Panthers were third with the thunder-and-lightning tandem of Williams and Stewart.

These Bears could resemble Fox's 2014 Broncos, who were led by C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman but also featured Montee Ball in short-yardage situations. It will be either Carey, the 2014 fourth-round pick of Phil Emery, or Jordan Howard, the 2016 fifth-round pick of Ryan Pace, getting those short-yardage carries.

Last season, Carey found his place as the tough runner for the Bears. Then, Pace went out and drafted Howard, a back whose shoulder pads are always lowered for hard contact.

"That's definitely my style," Howard said. "You have to be ready for any contact at any time. I welcome it most of the time. You have to keep the shoulder low, because if you don't have the shoulder low, somebody might catch you slipping."

Given the Bears' new affinity for the fullback, it's likely that the team carries just three running backs on its 53-man roster. Langford will see the majority of carries, and Rodgers will his share of handoffs while serving his roles in special teams. Behind them, it appears Carey and Howard could battle it out for the final place in the backfield.

Roles are being defined here in the preseason.

"The competition in our room right now is really good," Langford said. "Nothing is given. I wouldn't want it any other way. You have to earn anything you get."

The Bears have a decorated history at the running back position. It's reminded with the images all over Halas Hall of years gone by.

Now, instead of calling upon a workhorse running back, Fox's Bears are looking to win with the entire stable.

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago's sports scene and more for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.

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