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