2017 grade: B-
Level of need: Low
Decisions to be made on: Benny Cunningham (free agent), Michael Burton (scheme fit)
Possible free agent targets: Charles Sims, Andre Ellington, Kenjon Barner
Cunningham was a solid special teams contributor in 2017 (he also caught a fake punt touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings) and did some decent work on third downs with the offense. Beyond that, Cunningham was widely respected in the locker room and seemed to have a positive impact on Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen. The accountability he took for diving for the pylon against the Green Bay Packers in November -- which led to John Fox’s ill-fated challenge -- was among the actions that resonated with his teammates. Cunningham also didn’t cost much -- less than $900,000 -- and the Bears may opt to stick with the status quo to bring him back as the leader of a young and effective running back room.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers free agent Charles Sims and Houston Texans free agent Andre Ellington could fit a similar bill as Cunningham if the Bears opt for a No. 3 running back change. Kenjon Barner, who’s played sparingly with the Philadelphia Eagles the last three years, could be an interesting name given his Oregon connections to offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich.
But the most important changes to this unit during the 2018 offseason will be a product of the scheme change brought by coach Matt Nagy and Helfrich. Howard said this, on NFL Network prior to the Super Bowl, of the Bears’ 2017 offense: “They knew what was coming, like, pretty much every play.” Opposing defenses put eight or more men in the box on 43 percent of Howard runs last year, with only Jacksonville’s Leonard Fournette facing more stacked fronts among running backs with 200 or more rushing attempts.
Compare that to Kareem Hunt, who ran against eight-plus in the box on only 23 percent of his runs in Nagy and Andy Reid’s offense with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2017. A more balanced, less predictable offense will greatly benefit Howard; Nagy and Helfrich surely will find more ways to use Cohen than John Fox and Dowell Loggains did last year, too. This unit doesn’t necessarily need any additions, it just needs more help from a more creative coaching staff.
So the Bears probably won’t be too active in free agency with running backs, but what if Penn State’s Saquon Barkley falls to them in April’s NFL Draft? That seems to be a topic of discussion in some circles of Bears fans, and it’s certainly an enticing thought of pairing the super-talented Barkley with Mitchell Trubisky. But the Bears have too many red-line needs with other units (wide receiver, outside linebacker, cornerback) to draft someone who plays the same position as two of the team’s best players in Howard and Cohen. It’s also unlikely Barkley falls to No. 8, so this is probably a moot point anyway.