Bears

Bears will ride Jordan Howard going forward after impressive first start

Bears will ride Jordan Howard going forward after impressive first start

When the Bears decided to move on from veteran running back Matt Forte this past offseason, it opened the door for one of the young running backs in their stable to take the reins of the backfield and run away with the job.

Those reins appeared to have Jeremy Langford's name on them, but when he suffered an ankle injury against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 3, and with backup running back Ka'Deem Carey dealing with a hamstring injury, the door swung open for rookie running back Jordan Howard to show the Bears coaching staff what he could do in an expanded role.

Howard didn't disappoint.

Making his first career NFL start, Howard looked every bit the part of a bell cow running back. He carried the ball 23 times for 111 yards (4.8 yards per carry) and hauled in three catches for 21 yards in the Bears' 17-14 victory over the Detroit Lions on Sunday afternoon.

Howard became the first Bears running back to reach 100 yards on the ground since Forte accomplished the task in Week 1 of 2015 against the Green Bay Packers.

"I always knew that I might not be the fastest but I can get the job done," Howard said. "I've always believed in myself because if you don't believe in yourself nobody else will. You have to have self confidence. You have to be a determined runner. Not let the first person tackle you. You have to just keep moving your legs.

"I wasn't expecting the 100 yards but that made it even better. Just getting a win, I'm very excited about that."

Coming out of Indiana University, where he became the 150th player selected and 10th running back to go off the board in the 2016 NFL Draft, Howard was billed as a physical runner who didn't go down on first contact and had the ability to drive through would-be tacklers and fall forward for extra yards.

Howard's scouting report rang true against the Lions, as he wore down their defense by the time the fourth quarter rolled around. Howard notched an impressive 68 yards after first contact, according to ProFootballFocus.com.

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Bears veteran wide receiver Eddie Royal wasn't surprised to see Howard's running style take a toll on Detroit's defense.

"I saw it in training camp. I'm like, 'This kid is going to be a great player for us,'" Royal said. "His physical nature of running the ball, defenses are going to get tired of tackling him and he just gets those extra yards for us, and he did a great job."

One member of the Bears who spent time blocking for Howard shared the same sentiment. 

"He ran so well today," Bears tight end Zach Miller said. "The thing about him is the yards through contact. He keeps his feet turning and he's always falling forward, gaining extra yards. All those things matter so I'm happy for him to get over 100 in his first extended [action]."

Bears head coach John Fox has a history of deploying the running back-by-committee approach throughout his career. He did it Carolina with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, and he used the same tendencies in Denver with the likes of Knowshon Moreno, Montee Ball, Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson.

Fox also showed signs of taking that same approach in his first season with the Bears in 2015 with Forte, Langford and Carey. While it's not out of the question that Fox will go back to that game plan when the Bears have three healthy running backs, it's no secret he has faith in the rookie as evidenced by Howard's 23 carries compared to Joique Bell's three rushing attempts and third-stringer Raheem Mostert's goose egg.

"Obviously, he has a positive impact," Fox said. "We noticed pretty early on. Jordan is a big back and we knew that when he came out of Indiana University. The thing we didn't know is the quickness of his feet and the vision he has. I think he's outstanding and we will ride him pretty good going forward."

Howard's expanded role in the Bears offense is expected to continue next week when he draws the start at Lucas Oil Stadium — an hour drive from where he starred at Indiana — against the Indianapolis Colts. Don't expect him to shy away from the big stage. 

"I don't feel like the moment is too big for me," Howard said. "I'm just grateful for the opportunity God blessed me with, and the Bears for choosing me and giving me the opportunity to play."

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Mitch Unrein (free agent), John Jenkins (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Jared Crick, Frostee Rucker, Dominique Easley

This unit was consistently the Bears’ best in 2017, with Akiem Hicks playing at a Pro Bowl level (don’t let his exclusion from the game fool you on that) and Eddie Goldman putting together a rock-solid, healthy year. 

Hicks signed a four-year contract extension just before the season began and rewarded the Bears with a dominant year, racking up 8 ½ sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. Goldman played in and started 15 games and was a key reason why the Bears limited opposing rushers to four yards per carry, tied for the 10th-best average in the league. 

But while the Bears’ defensive line was certainly good, it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. These words from Vic Fangio ring true for Hicks and Goldman:

“I think they all have a lot more to give to us than we’ve seen,” Fangio said. “And it’s our job to get them to improve and become even better players. That will be more important to us than anybody we can acquire between now and whenever our first game is. So, and I know it’s always sexy to talk between now and the first game, you know, who are you going to draft, who’s in free agency, etc., but we’ve got to get our so-called good players playing even better. And that will be critical.”

Hicks will enter Year 3 in Fangio’s scheme, while 2018 will be Goldman’s fourth. It’ll also be a critical year for Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris, who’ve flashed potential at times but haven’t been able to turn that into consistent success on the field. 

And that’s where we begin to look ahead to free agency and the draft. Is the Bears’ evaluation of Bullard -- their 2016 third-round pick -- positive enough to hand him a bigger role in 2018? That’s question No. 1 to answer, with No. 2 then being if the team should try to re-sign Mitch Unrein. 

It may be a bit risky to move forward with Bullard, given how popular Unrein was among the Bears’ defensive coaching staff. 

“He’s one of the glue guys on the defense and the team,” Fangio said last November. “Every team needs a few of those guys who are going to do everything right, full speed, hard and tough all the time, and that’s Mitch.”

Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers offered this up about Unrein back in October: “He allows those guys to play fast,” with “those guys” being Hicks and Goldman. 

Statistically, the 30-year-old Unrein doesn’t  jump off the page, but he did record a career high 2 ½ sacks in 2017. Perhaps there would be some benefits to continuity in the Bears’ base 3-4 defensive line.

Worth noting too is this position isn’t a huge need, given Unrein usually played between 40 and 55 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps on a per-game basis last year. Keeping Unrein for a relatively low cap hit would make some sense, as opposed to testing free agency to replace him.

Jared Crick is coming off back surgery and an ineffective 2016; Dominique Easley is coming off his third torn ACL this decade; Frostee Rucker is in his mid-30’s. The Bears could look to pick a 3-4 defensive end in April, but that would be a pretty quick re-draft of the position and would be an indication they don’t think much of Bullard. This seems like a position where keeping the status quo is likely, save maybe for replacing John Jenkins with a different backup behind Goldman. 
 

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 grade: C+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Josh Sitton (contract), Eric Kush (contract), Hroniss Grasu (contract), Bobby Massie (contract), Tom Compton (free agent), Bradley Sowell (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Andrew Norwell, D.J. Fluker, Justin Pugh, Josh Kline, Jonathan Cooper

How the Bears’ offensive line will shape up in 2018 begins with a decision on which the Bears are already on the clock. The team has until March 9 to pick up Josh Sitton’s 2018 option -- or, to put it another way, they have until March 9 to determine if Sitton was/is/will be good enough to justify keeping him and not netting about $8 million in cap savings, per Spotrac. 

For what it’s worth, Bleacher Report ranked Sitton as the league’s sixth-best guard in 2017. If the Bears’ grades of Sitton match those outside ones, then the team probably won’t cut him -- not destabilizing Mitchell Trubisky’s offensive line would be well worth the money in that case. While Sitton turns 32 in June, cutting him would put a lot of pressure on Kyle Long, who hasn’t been fully healthy since 2016. The Bears are hopeful that Long will be back to full strength after multiple offseason surgeries, but releasing Sitton and then signing/drafting his replacement would be a gamble on Long’s health. 

Sitton’s status is the first part of the Bears’ 2018 offensive line equation. There’s also a decision to be made on Bobby Massie, who Bleacher Report ranked as the NFL’s 14th-best right tackle last year but could be cut for about $5.5 million in cap savings, according to Spotrac. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Bears cut or kept both Sitton and Massie for now, then drafted an offensive lineman in the first round (like Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson or Texas tackle Connor Williams) and released one of them. Or they could keep both through the end of the 2018 season. All those options would make sense on some level.

What wouldn’t seem to make sense is the Bears cutting Sitton or Massie and replacing them with a free agent. This year’s offensive line free agent class, without adding any potential cap casualties to it, isn’t particularly strong. By Bleacher Report’s rankings, the best free agent right tackle is Houston’s Breno Giancomi, who’s 27th in that list -- 13 spots behind Massie. At left tackle, New England’s Nate Solder (No. 22) isn’t rated as highly as Charles Leno (No. 20), who we'll talk about in a bit here. 

The only potential upgrade available via free agency would be Carolina Panthers guard Andrew Norwell (No. 2 in B/R’s rankings), who’s 26 and is in line for a big payday this spring -- but that would seemingly be counter-intuitive to releasing Sitton and then potentially paying more money to a different guard, even if he’s younger and has more long-term upside. The Bears could opt for a cheaper guard in free agency who could have some potential working with respected O-line coach Harry Hiestand -- the Giants’ D.J. Fluker (57th in B/R’s rankings) or Justin Pugh (42nd) fit that mold, as would the Titans’ Josh Kline (37th) or Cowboys’ Jonathan Cooper (38th). Or the Bears could keep Sitton and still sign one of those guys as insurance in case Long and/or Eric Kush, who tore his ACL last training camp, isn’t ready to start the season. 

Tom Compton and Bradley Sowell proved to be serviceable backups last year and could be an option to return, even with a new coaching staff in place. The health of Kush, who was missed as a reliable backup in 2017, will be important in figuring out what the Bears' O-line depth looks like. Hroniss Grasu struggled when he was on the field and missed time due to a hand injury, and despite playing for offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich at Oregon could be on the chopping block before/during training camp. 

We’ll finish here with some thoughts on Leno and Cody Whitehair. Could the Bears upgrade at left tackle and displace Leno to the right side of the offensive line? Possibly, especially if Hiestand believes he can make that move work. But it’d be odd if the Bears shifted Leno off left tackle and then signed someone who’s older and, depending on the evaluator, not even as good as him. 

This is all probably a moot point, since the Bears’ internal evaluation of Leno is what matters here. Leno is 26 and the Bears believe he hasn’t reached his ceiling yet, so more than likely, he’s sticking where he is. At the very least, he’ll enter 2018 with a starting job on the Bears’ offensive line. 

One other offseason objective for Hiestand and the new coaching staff: Keeping Whitehair at the same position. Whitehair’s versatility felt like it worked against him at times last year, with the former regime opting to shift him between guard and center quite a bit from the start of training camp through the early part of the season. That instability seemed to affect Whitehair’s play, as he went through a bizarre patch of snapping issues after moving back to center and struggled to be as consistent as he was in 2016. But Whitehair finished 2017 strong, and keeping him at center for the entirety of 2018 could get him back on track to make his first Pro Bowl.