Bears grades and needs: How can the running game improve in 2019?

Bears grades and needs: How can the running game improve in 2019?

2018 depth chart

1. Jordan Howard
Usage: 16 games, 58.1 percent of offensive snaps
2019 status: $2,107,007 cap hit

The Bears need more consistency from their running back position in 2019, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Howard will be excluded from those efforts. He’s still cheap with that cap hit of a little over $2 million, and at the very least he’s an effective runner near the goal line — six of his nine touchdowns came within an opponents’ two-yard line, and all but one of his scores came on goal-to-go downs. 

Both Matt Nagy and Howard struggled to find a solution to the Bears’ run game inconsistencies in 2018. Howard was good in December, going over 100 yards twice (against the Rams and Vikings) while averaging 4.5 yards per carry over the Bears’ final games. But his 10-carry, 35-yard clunker in the wild card loss to the Eagles was yet another sign the Bears may need different personnel and/or tweaks to the scheme to trust their ground game. 

Beyond generating more consistent rushing gains — Howard averaged fewer than three yards per carry in 11 of the Bears’ 17 regular season and playoff games — this is an offense that severely lacked play-action punch. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars averaged fewer yards per play on play action than the Bears’ 5.7 clip, and Nagy called play action on 20 percent of the team’s plays (23rd in the NFL, per Football Outsiders). 

And that’s not necessarily how Nagy’s offense is designed to operate — the Chiefs ran play-action on 27 percent of their plays and averaged 8.6 yards per play on it, both top-10 rates. So a better run game would, in turn, help Mitch Trubisky be a more effective passer. 

Going forward, Howard will still have a place in the Bears’ offense, unless Ryan Pace is able to swing a trade involving him (though, again, around $2 million for an effective goal-line back who has two 1,000-yard seasons under his belt seems like good value). But if Howard is still in Chicago next September, his role likely will be different than what we’ve seen in the past. Three years into his career, he is who he is — which, again, isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it means he may not be the ideal fit for a No. 1 running back in Nagy's scheme. 

“Everyone talks about the run game,” Nagy said. “It wasn't as good as it should be, and the offense can be better. Without a doubt, no doubt.” 

2. Tarik Cohen
Usage: 16 games, 46.1 percent of offensive snaps, 21.2 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: $803,914 cap hit

Cohen led the Bears with 71 receptions, averaged 4.5 yards per carry and scored eight total touchdowns (three rushing, five receiving), proving himself to be the kind of explosive, versatile weapon that fits perfectly in Nagy’s scheme. To illustrate how the Bears used Cohen: He had a higher average yards per touch (6.9) than the likes of Alvin Kamara, Saquon Barkley, Todd Gurley, Christian McCaffrey and Melvin Gordon in 2018. 

Cohen’s lack of use in the wild card loss to the Eagles was a disappointment, though, even if it wasn’t necessarily a failure on Nagy’s part to get him the ball (Nagy, twice, bristled at questions about Cohen only getting four touches in that one-point loss). The issue was more about the Eagles being able to zero in on Cohen without Trey Burton on the field, which might’ve exposed more of a structural flaw within Nagy’s offense. 

Still, Cohen’s future is bright. If the Bears’ 2018 offense was all about learning football 101, then Nagy can do plenty more with Cohen in the more advanced parts of his scheme. And that should be a tantalizing thought for Bears fans going forward. 

3. Taquan Mizzell
Usage: 9 games, 6.5 percent of offensive snaps, 22.6 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: $645,000 cap hit

For a guy who didn’t play much, Mizzell seemed to be a consistent source of frustration among fans last season. That’s not totally unfair — he averaged 1.8 yards per carry on his nine rushing attempts, mostly on RPOs, and only two of those carries went for four or more yards. 

Mizzell did catch eight passes for 78 yards, including a touchdown against the Lions on Thanksgiving, flashing a bit of the pass-catching versatility that allowed him to stick around the Bears’ roster for the last two years. If the Bears do wind up drafting and/or signing a running back to better fit the offense, though, Mizzell will have an uphill climb to stick on the roster in 2019. 

4. Michael Burton
Usage: 8 games, 4.6 percent of offensive snaps, 11.8 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: Unrestricted free agent

Burton was inactive for half the season’s games and only played 28 snaps as a fullback — which represents 2.6 percent of the Bears’ offensive plays in 2018. Nagy may still want the option of having a fullback, and the Bears could still retain Burton, but it doesn’t appear to be a pressing need right now. 

5. Benny Cunningham 
Usage: 15 games, 3.4 percent of offensive snaps, 58.6 percent of special teams snaps
2019 status: Unrestricted free agent

Cunningham is a core special teamer and a team leader who was voted by his teammates a captain for the Bears’ wild card playoff game. Howard’s improvements in pass protection meant Cunningham didn’t have much of a place on the offense, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him brought back in 2019. 

6. Ryan Nall
Usage: Practice squad
2019 status: Reserve/future contract

The Bears liked what they saw from Nall during training camp, but not enough to carry him on the active roster during the season. He could, though, work his way into the mix in 2019 if he shows he could have the flexibility to play fullback while still being effective as a running back/special teamer. 

Level of need (1-11, with 11 being the highest): 10

The Bears’ offense needs to run the ball better in 2019, and Pace, Nagy and the team’s pro and amateur scouting department surely are focusing on identifying players who can accomplish that goal. Unearthing a versatile back with one of the team’s five draft picks (all in the third round or later) while also bringing in a low-risk free agent or two may be the best way to find that fix, though it’s hardly a guarantee. 

Previous positions: QBs

Chicago Bears Free Agent Focus: Eric Ebron

Chicago Bears Free Agent Focus: Eric Ebron

Stop me if you've heard this one before: The Bears need a tight end.

It's a narrative that started bubbling since the middle of the 2019 regular season when it became apparent that neither Trey Burton nor Adam Shaheen was the answer at the position for the Bears. Coach Matt Nagy was forced to turn to undrafted rookie Jesper Horsted and little-known veteran J.P. Holtz to find production for his offense. It was a big problem for Nagy, whose system calls for a playmaking tight end like Travis Kelce to hit its maximum potential.

To be fair, there's only a few at that level (Kelce, George Kittle and Zach Ertz) in the league right now. But the Bears have to do their due diligence this offseason to try and find a 'lite' version of that guy. One player in free agency who has a resume of recent production as a pass-catcher to maybe be 'that guy' is Eric Ebron, who's coming off of a down year with the Colts.

Ebron appeared in just 11 games last season and finished with 31 catches for 375 yards and three touchdowns. It was a stark contrast from 2018 when he scored 13 touchdowns and was one of the NFL's best playmakers at the position.

RELATED: Bears Free Agent Focus: Case Keenum

The problem with Ebron as a viable target for Chicago is that his tenure in the league produced more seasons like 2019 than 2018, but his pedigree as a former top-10 pick with high-end athletic traits warrants at least a look for a possible one-year prove-it deal.

At 26 years old, Ebron still has a lot of good football left in his legs. His market value should come in lower than Burton's $8 million per season; according to Spotrac, Ebron's expected contract this offseason will pay him around $7.5 million per year. Compared to the likely cost for players like Austin Hooper (Falcons) and Hunter Henry (Chargers), Ebron will be a bargain.

Ryan Pace will be bargain shopping in March, and Ebron may end up on the discount rack after the first wave of free agency concludes. Teams will be hesitant to offer him the kind of multi-year deal he's going to seek, which will give the Bears a chance to swoop in and lure him with the prove-it theory. He's young enough to earn a lucrative contract in 2021 if he posts big-time numbers in 2020, which Nagy's offense will give him the chance to do if he stays healthy.

Even the worst version of Ebron is better than the best of what Chicago has on its roster right now. He should rank highly on their offseason wish list, assuming his market remains where it logically should.

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Chicago Bears Free Agent Focus: Case Keenum

Chicago Bears Free Agent Focus: Case Keenum

The Bears have been connected to all of the big-name free agent quarterbacks this offseason. General manager Ryan Pace is expected to add competition for the starting job in free agency or the 2020 NFL draft after incumbent and former second overall pick, Mitch Trubisky, regressed mightily in his third season last year.

But rather than focus on players like Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and even Marcus Mariota, it makes more sense to pay close attention to the next tier of free agent passers who could offer a potential upgrade from Trubisky while not necessarily creating shockwaves through Halas Hall upon signing.

One quarterback who fits that description perfectly is Case Keenum, the journeyman starter who's entering his 10th season in the league. 

Keenum is coming off of back-to-back forgettable seasons with the Broncos and Redskins, but it wasn't long ago when he was one of the better storylines in the NFL after leading the Vikings to 11 wins in 14 starts in 2017. He threw for 3,547 yards, 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions that year and earned himself a respectable two-year, $36 million contract with Denver in 2018. His tenure as a Bronco lasted just one season (he finished 2018 with a 6-10 record) and his time as the Redskins starter was short-lived in 2019. He started just eight games for Washington.

For his career, Keenum's completed 62.4% of his passes and has thrown 75 touchdowns compared to 47 interceptions.

Keenum's resume isn't overly impressive, which is why he's a great fit for what Pace should try to accomplish over the next two months. He has to find a competent starter who can take advantage of everything else the Bears have going for them (namely, a championship-caliber defense) and who can be aggressive enough on offense to score enough points to win the close games. Keenum proved in 2017 that he can do that, especially when he has a good supporting case around him.

Keenum also qualifies as a solid bridge quarterback in the event Trubisky crashes and burns in 2020. At 32 years old, he's young enough to keep the starting job for a couple of seasons while Chicago attempts to find a younger long-term answer under center. 

Last but not least, he's going to be cheap. He didn't have a good year in 2019, and he was making just $3.5 million with the Redskins. There will be a limited market for his services this March, which means the Bears should be able to land him at a backup's salary despite his starter's upside. And that matters, especially for a team that's trying to free up salary cap space for other positions of need along the offensive line and secondary.

Keenum won't move the needle much for Bears fans in March, but landing a player of his caliber could ultimately be the difference between the Bears missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season and making a deep playoff run.