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

Bears preseason notes: Matt Nagy's starter-sitting plan, Javon Wims' roster spot and a peaking Duck

Bears preseason notes: Matt Nagy's starter-sitting plan, Javon Wims' roster spot and a peaking Duck

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Twenty-six Bears starters/key players did not play in Friday’s preseason loss to the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium, ranging from guys established as among the best in the league (Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Eddie Jackson) to players with more to prove (David Montgomery, Adam Shaheen, Mitch Trubisky). 

Of the eight players who caught a pass, only two have seemingly punched their tickets to the Bears’ 53-man roster (wide receivers Riley Ridley and Javon Wims — more on Wims later). Of the six players who had a rushing attempt, only quarterback Chase Daniel will be comfortable over cut-down weekend. 

And on defense, 25 players recorded at least one tackle but only four look like locks for the Bears’ roster (Nick Kwiatkoski, Sherrick McManis, Deon Bush, Roy Robertson-Harris). 

“My biggest thing is I’m trying to do what’s best for the Chicago Bears, and every team is different, and that’s okay,” coach Matt Nagy said. “… We love where we’re at right now in regards to our starters. We feel really good about it.”

The Bears held a mock game at Halas Hall on Wednesday, one which allowed Nagy to get his starters some situational work in a controlled setting instead of in a less-predictable preseason game. Instead, these preseason games have turned into extended tests for the large group of players fighting to make the Bears’ roster — the Bears’ second-team offense and defense went against the Giants’ first-team defense and offense for a portion of Friday’s game, which’ll be notable as the team evaluates the guys who’ll fill out the back end of their roster. 

Nagy’s preseason approach to his most important players may start catching on around the league, especially as so many teams have hired younger, offensive-minded coaches who haven’t been doing something a certain way for decades. So the next time you'll see Trubisky throw a pass in a game, barring something extremely unexpected, will be Sept. 5 against the Green Bay Packers. 

Even Nagy’s mentor, Andy Reid — one of most progressive, longest-tenured coaches in the NFL — still plays his starters in preseason games. That’s not to say it’s right or wrong. Nagy just doesn’t think that approach makes sense for his team. 

“Coach (Reid) has his way and I think coach Reid would be the first to tell you that if I’m not being me and if I’m not trying to do what I think is right for our team, then I’m not coach Reid,” Nagy said. “I’ve learned so much from him, but for our team and our situation I need to do what’s best for us and I just feel like that’s where it’s at.

“September 5th is an important day for us.”

The Bears lost reserve tackle Rashaad Coward to an elbow injury during Friday’s game, while longtime practice squad safety Jonathon Mincy was looked at for a concussion. Left guard Cody Whitehair, who injured his finger during Wednesday’s practice, was participating in pregame warmups with only that lone finger taped. 

See Montgomery, burns?

Nagy felt himself getting carried away praising Montgomery after the third-round pick’s impressive preseason debut last week against the Carolina Panthers, to the point he later smirked that Montgomery’s seven-yard touchdown run was just “average.” 

Still, the Bears clearly had seen enough of Montgomery after one game. All the things he put on tape at Iowa State — patience, contact balance, tackle breaking, good hands, etc. — showed up against the Panthers. So in addition to Tarik Cohen and Mike Davis, Montgomery wasn’t put into harm’s way against the Giants. The next snap he takes in a game will be Sept. 5, barring a surprise. 

“I would say he’s done a good job in practice,” Nagy said. “We like what we’ve seen.”

Spot locked up for Wims?

As promised, some thoughts on Wims, who led the Bears having caught five of six targets for 64 yards, including an impressive 29-yard snag just before halftime. It was games like this that led the Bears to feel as if they had to keep the 2018 seventh-round pick on their roster last year instead of risking him to waivers in an attempt to sneak him on to the practice squad. With another strong showing on film for the rest of the league to see, the thought here is Wims’ roster spot is all but secure. 

And it’s not like Wims’ good game came out of nowhere — he’s been progressing to a night like this since the start of training camp. Cornerback Prince Amukamara — who got in a tussle with Wims during Tuesday’s practice — said he’s sensed a different gear in Wims since OTAs in spring, combining improved speed with developing route-running skills and the same go-up-and-get-it ability that was all over his college tape at Georgia. 

Wims’ 29-yard reception — after which the Bears clocked the ball with one second left, leading to Eddy Pineiro hitting a short field goal (one he wished he was longer) — was probably the most impressive offensive play of the game. 

“We practice that stuff,” Nagy said. ‘So what they just did with 16 seconds is hard to do and they did it very effectively, so when you look for positives for us, that’s something that I’m going to come away from this weekend and say you guys just rocked it, you did that the right way and we just got three points off of you guys executing what we teach you,”

Marvin Hall can still make the Bears’ roster, and for the second consecutive week broke free downfield for what could’ve been a big-chunk play only to have third-string quarterback Tyler Bray overthrow him. But he had a rough punt return, running backward from his own 19-yard line and, combined with a penalty assessed to sixth-round pick Duke Shelley, dropped the Bears at their own eight-yard line. 

Peaking Duck, and other ups and downs

— Undrafted corner Clifton Duck jumped an Alex Tanney pass at the goal line and dashed 62 yards for the Bears’ most impressive defensive play of the game. Duck is undersized and may not have the speed of Shelley, but his ball skills have consistently shown up during training camp. Those haven’t come out of nowhere, either: No FBS player had more interceptions than Duck from 2016-2018. 

And it’s not just the interceptions that’ve caught Nagy’s eye. His tenacity on the field has been noted, and it’ll be interesting to see if he gets more run with the second-team defense next weekend against the Indianapolis Colts. At the least, he looks like a good practice squad candidate; at best, he could make a push for a roster spot in a crowded group of young reserve corners. 

“He’s done it in practice. I like that,” Nagy said. “I think anybody that has some ball skills, which he does, that is always playing hard, you appreciate that. And I know he makes it difficult for our quarterbacks.”

Read more about Duck here

— It wasn’t as impressive a day for the rest of that aforementioned group of young corners. Shelley missed a tackle on wide receiver Bennie Fowler, allowing the ex-Bears training camp receiver to score a touchdown on the Giants’ opening drive. Shelley also committed that penalty on Hall’s punt return. 

The Bears rotated Kevin Toliver, Michael Joseph and John Franklin as their outside corners throughout the game. Franklin had wide receiver T.J. Jones blanketed to force an incompletion in the second quarter, but was then beat by the former Notre Dame receiver for a 15-yard touchdown later in the game. Franklin, the quarterback-turned-receiver-turned-cornerback, was also beat for a 37-yard gain in the third quarter, though it looked like Giants receiver Da'Mari Scott might’ve pushed off on the play. 

Joseph was beat for a 40-yard gain, though the play was more about the outstanding throw made by sixth overall pick Daniel Jones to wide receiver Cody Latimer. 

— Running back Ryan Nall had a solid 14-yard run to pick up a first down in the first quarter, which undrafted tight end Dax Raymond helped spring with a nice block on the edge. Nall started on offense over seventh-round rookie Kerrith Whyte Jr., though neither were particularly effective on the ground (Nall: seven carries, 23 yards; Whyte: six carries, 10 yards). Nall did catch four passes for 21 yards while. 

— Still, Whyte had the best non-highlight highlight of the game when he housed an Aldrick Rosas’ kickoff for a 103-yard touchdown, only to have it called back due to a holding penalty on Isaiah Irving (if you were watching the TV broadcast — Franklin was initially flagged for the penalty, but it was corrected to be assessed to Irving). While it didn’t count, it put Whyte’s breakaway speed on display. That could be an important point in his favor if the Bears’ roster comes down to keeping four running backs (with Whyte) or seven wide receivers (with Hall). 

— Receiver/running back Taquan Mizzell lost two fumbles in the span of four offensive plays. The most notable part of it: The Metlife Stadium PA system blasting Snoop Dogg's "Drop It Like It's Hot" after the first one, and then playing Britney Spears' "Oops...I Did It Again" after the second. Ouch. 

— It didn’t feel like a particularly good game for the Bears’ reserve tight ends. Bradley Sowell was whistled for a false start with the Bears at their own eight-yard line, and he was burned by Giants linebacker Markus Golden for a sack. While Raymond had a good block on Nall’s run, neither he nor fellow undrafted rookie Ian Bunting were noticeable. Neither player was targeted — in fact, not a single Bears tight end received a target on Friday. 

— Two other splash plays on defense: McManis with a perfectly-executed Peanut Punch to force a fumble, and outside linebacker James Vaughters’ strip/sack/recovery, which he returned eight yards to the Giants’ 12-yard line. 

That McManis has been working with the third-team safety pairing shouldn’t be taken as a sign he’s on the roster bubble — he’s a veteran core special teamer who acquitted himself well enough as a slot corner following Bryce Callahan’s season-ending injury last year. 

And Vaughters’ play was notable if only because the Bears’ reserve outside linebackers — him, Irving, Kylie Fitts, Mathieu Betts, Chuck Harris — haven’t flashed much during both practices and games so far this preseason. The Bears may only wind up carrying four outside linebackers (Mack, Leonard Floyd, Aaron Lynch, TBD — though Irving has the inside track) if general manager Ryan Pace sticks to the “best 53” approach he’s said he’s taking. 

Bears, Matt Nagy make statement by leaving G Kyle Long off trip to face NY Giants

Bears, Matt Nagy make statement by leaving G Kyle Long off trip to face NY Giants

The reason behind guard Kyle Long not making the New York/Jersey trip with his teammates presumably traces to his confrontations with teammates during two practices over the past week, principally the ugly fight in which he was involved during practice Wednesday night. Whether the full and true details will surface is problematic, though, given coach Matt Nagy’s declared approach of handling certain matters internally, seconded by GM Ryan Pace.

“Really that’s an internal matter for us and we’ll keep that inside,” Pace said during FOX-TV’s “Bears Kickoff” pregame show.

Wherever the matter is kept, the overall played out as a situation in which Nagy was faced with a need to establish definitively where lines are within his program. Coaches who don’t – see: Trestman, Marc – eventually lose control of their team. Nagy is still in the installation phase of his program, and a lack of discipline in any venue portends a lack of it on the field when it matters.

A team leader being disciplined publicly obviously takes it beyond “inside” or “internally.” It also suggests a deeper concern and message – to Long or the team or both – if for no other reason than neither cornerback Prince Amukamara nor receiver Javon Wims, who got into a heated dustup in which punches were thrown at Tuesday’s practice, were effectively suspended from a team activity.

Nagy was visibly unhappy with the Long incident afterwards, in which the veteran offensive lineman ripping the helmet off of Jalen Dalton and hitting the rookie defensive lineman with it several times before hurling the helmet down the field. Long was sent out of practice, which very likely did little to improve his mood and may have started a burn that turned into an attitude that Nagy could not leave unaddressed.

Nagy and the Bears have some precedents for sanctioning Long and for how serious incidents can be.

Kansas City tackle John Tait, whose eventually came to the Bears via free agency, suffered a broken nose, needed 17 stitches to close a head wound, and missed two weeks of the Chiefs’ 2002 training camp when defensive lineman Eddie Freeman got Tait’s helmet off and smashed the offensive lineman over the head with it in a camp fight. Neither player was disciplined, however.

Possibly more in line with the Long situation, tight end Martellus Bennett was fined and suspended for conduct detrimental to the team following a fight in a Bourbonnais practice with then-rookie cornerback Kyle Fuller. Bennett became incensed after Fuller knocked him down while attempting to knock the ball out of Bennett’s hands. Bennett body-slammed Fuller, setting off a larger fracas and was sent away from training camp after a volatile meeting with GM Phil Emery.

The suspension lasted a week and cost Bennett an undisclosed amount in fines. No initial word if Long was fined for his conduct.

*                     *                          *

Meaningful takeaways from preseason games are always spotty, particularly with teams like the Bears, who played exactly zero of their offensive and defensive starters on Friday. Teams do little to no scheming, players are substituted extensively and virtually all of the action is from backups, many of whom will not be on the final roster and even the ones who are won’t be prime-time players, barring lineup vacancies caused by injuries.

Still, the Bears 32-13 loss to the New York Giants was cause for a handful of observations:

  • The Chicago defense in the first half alone generated two takeaways (it should have been three but two players attempted to pick up a Giants fumble instead of falling on the football, which New York offensive lineman Nick Gates did). This follows a two-takeaway game against Carolina last week. The two Friday were supplemented by a diving red-zone interception by rookie cornerback Clifton Duck, who returned the INT 62 yards
  • But the No. 2 offense under quarterback Chase Daniel managed just six first downs and 97 total yards for the entire half, and ran just seven plays for minus-19 yards off the takeaways. Three of the plays were sacks of Daniel for a combined minus-25 yards. Not insignificantly from a perspective standpoint, the Giants started many of their No. 1’s, including quarterback Eli Manning, while exactly zero members of the Bears No. 1 units played in this second preseason game.
  • Aspiring defensive back John Franklin III, who’d produced flash plays through this offseason, played himself dangerously close to the edge of the roster. Franklin was beaten for a touchdown pass from Daniel Jones to wide receiver TJ Jones, then allowed a 37-yard completion late in the third quarter.
  • Rookie Kerrith White, who may have punched his ticket for a roster spot, returned the ensuing kickoff 103 yards for an apparent touchdown, only to have it called back for holding by linebacker Isaiah Irving.
  • It was not the only piece of a second straight poor performance by special teams. Whyte returned a second-quarter kickoff 34 yards, only to have it called back because of a holding infraction by running back Ryan Nall.
  • Whyte demonstrated some strong running in tight situations, getting the football across the goal line in the third quarter on a one-yard push, his fourth carry in five snaps to finish the drive following the interception by Duck.