Bears

Is the Bears' inconsistent run game fixable in 2020?

Is the Bears' inconsistent run game fixable in 2020?

The Bears identified David Montgomery as the centerpiece of their run game overhaul earlier this year, trading up in the third round to draft him with the 73rd overall pick. Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy, then, didn’t envision Montgomery averaging just 3.5 yards per carry a dozen games into his rookie year. 

But that’s where the Bears stand with Montgomery, who’s rushed 172 times for 594 yards as the Bears enter the final four games of 2019. It feels like Nagy trusts Montgomery, but not the Bears’ run game. 

“I’m very happy with where he’s at,” Nagy said last week. “Love the kid to death and I think he has a really bright future.”

But the Bears need to get more production out of Montgomery, whose three best games have come against bad and depleted defenses (Washington, the Chargers, the Lions). He’s averaged fewer than three yards per carry in five games this year, leading Nagy — who has a quick trigger finger with going away from the run anyway — to have games like Green Bay and New Orleans where he shows no trust in the run game at all. 

But the Bears’ positive assessment of Montgomery is grounded in reality. All the things he did at Iowa State have showed up in the NFL — the shiftiness, the toughness, the patience, the vision, etc. It’s how he was able to turn this...

And then this...

... Into a 10-yard gain and a first down on the Bears’ game-winning drive against the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving. The stop-start ability, patience and toughness to grind out five extra yards after contact are all reasons why the Bears wanted Montgomery, and felt comfortable trading Jordan Howard — who, based on his running style, would’ve been stopped at the line of scrimmage — to the Philadelphia Eagles. 

Plays like that one are why Nagy, in the game, said he felt like the Bears were gaining five yards per carry (Montgomery averaged 4.7) — a feel which helped him open up his playbook and call more running plays. 

“It makes it a lot easier, because it’s open to what the next play call’s gonna be based off of second-and-3, second-and-4, second-and-5,” Nagy said. “It’s way easier. You felt that. Now, every week is different, because there’s some weeks where you play a defensive line or a defensive front that’s totally (different). 

“You can’t just put on Tecmo Bowl and all the sudden be playing this front on arcades. … It’s different every week, so we’ve gotta try to scheme things up as much as we can. But last week felt good.”

The question, then, becomes: How do the Bears get this out of Montgomery on a consistent basis, and not just against sub-optimal run defenses missing guys like Damon “Snacks” Harrison?

Part of it, certainly, is Nagy’s scheme and playcalling. Montgomery is the kind of back who can wear down a defense with his physicality, even if he’s only gaining three yards per carry over the first two or three quarters. There needs to be a greater long-term commitment to getting Montgomery touches. 

Of note: It does not necessarily mean running more under center. Montgomery is averaging three yards per carry when the Bears are under center (91 attempts) and four yards per carry from the shotgun (81 attempts), though that latter number is skewed thanks to a 55-yard run against the Chargers in Week 8. Even removing that run from Montgomery’s shotgun runs, he’s averaging 3.3 yards per carry in those — still higher than his under center average. 

But there’s a larger issue in play here, and it’s the Bears’ offensive line. 

It’s a problem that pre-dates Montgomery and Nagy’s scheme and playcalling, too. Pulling from Football Outsiders’ offensive line database:

2017
3.65 adjusted line yards (28th)
58% power success (26th)
26% stuffed (28th)
1.2 second level yards (11th)

2018 
3.92 adjusted line yards (28th)
67% over success (18th)
20.5% stuffed (22nd)
0.96 second level yards (31st)

2019 (through Week 12) 
3.61 adjusted line yards (29th)
46% power success (30th)
21% stuffed (24th)
0.73 second level yards (32nd)

The pattern here: The Bears have not been efficient running the ball with different schemes and running back depth charts, though they've largely had the same personnel on their offensive line. Charles Leno, Cody Whitehair, Kyle Long and Bobby Massie have accounted for 66.8 percent of the snaps played by Bears offensive linemen in the last three years, serving well as pass protectors but not as run blockers. 

The addition of James Daniels in 2018 did not help improve the Bears’ run game, nor has replacing Long with Rashaad Coward in 2019 under the watch of offensive line coach Harry Hiestand. 

And the Bears have little wiggle room for changes to this unit in the offseason. Massie and Whitehair signed new contracts in 2019 and aren’t going anywhere. Leno carries a dead cap figure of over $7 million in 2020. Daniels’ cap hit is a shade over $1.5 million next year, too, making him a valuable asset for a team lacking gobs of cap space. 

Effectively, you can expect all four of those players to return in 2020, with the only question being where Daniels and Whitehair play on the interior. At this point in their careers, Leno, Whitehair and Massie are all who they are, for better or for worse (Whitehair, to be fair, is still one of the Bears’ best players). So expecting significant improvement from that group may not be fair, Daniels aside. 

That leaves right guard as the position up for grabs, with Long likely to be cut and Coward likely to slide into a reserve role in 2020. But how much improvement, realistically, can the Bears get out of one addition to their offensive line room?

Washington’s Brandon Scherff is the top guard free-agent-to-be, but the Bears would have to get creative — and not address other holes on the roster — to sign him to, say, a five-year, $65 million deal with $35 million or so guaranteed (he might even command more than that). Someone like New Orleans’ Andrus Peat, a former top-10 pick who’s currently out with an arm injury, could be a less-pricey — but still pricey — option, given he was a Pro Bowler in 2018. 

The Bears could also target a guard with one of their two second-round picks, seeing as they used one on Whitehair (2016) and Daniels (2018). 

It feels like the Bears need a physical brawler to play right guard, sort of along the lines of what Long was in his prime. But those guys are not necessarily easy to find, especially with limited resources. 

This is the root of the Bears’ run game problems. An offensive line consistently generating a run push would give Nagy the confidence to call more running plays, giving Montgomery more opportunities to carve out a consistent four or five yards per carry. 

But finding the solution to this problem does not appear easy. And that may mean the Bears go through 2020 without an effective run game, again. 

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2020 NFL Combine: Time, TV schedule and how to watch online

2020 NFL Combine: Time, TV schedule and how to watch online

The 2020 NFL Combine on-field workouts kick off Thursday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, and with so much pressure on Bears GM Ryan Pace to get this year's second-round picks right, the Combine will be even more important than in the past. 

It's true that the underwear Olympics aren't always a good indicator of future NFL success, but Pace and his contingent of Bears scouts and front office decision-makers have to gather as much information, from every clue available, before pulling the trigger on any of this April's draft hopefuls.

With the NFL Combine moving to primetime this year, Bears fans have a greater opportunity to decide for themselves which prospects look the part from an athletic standpoint. Here are all the ways you can catch the drills:

TV: NFL Network
Streaming: NFL.com, NFL Mobile App

Workout schedule

Date: Thursday, Feb. 27
Time: 4-11 p.m. ET
Positions: QB, WR, TE

Date: Friday, Feb. 28
Time: 4-11 p.m. ET
Positions: RB, OL, K, ST

Date: Saturday, Feb. 29
Time: 4-11 p.m. ET
Positions: DL, LB

Date: Sunday, March 1
Time: 2-7 p.m. ET
Positions: DB

The Bears can be aggressive in NFL free agency if they bet on new CBA

The Bears can be aggressive in NFL free agency if they bet on new CBA

If the NFL’s proposed CBA is ratified by the NFLPA — and, right now, it seems like it will be — every current, active contract will look like a bargain in a few years. And that’s the starting point for how the Bears could maybe, just maybe, get a little weird in free agency this year. 

There's always money in the banana stand, after all. 

The Bears are projected to have about $26 million in cap space, per Spotrac, a number that currently would not allow them to sign a big-name free agent or trade for a guy with a high price tag. Cap space can always be created, though — it just depends on how willing a team is to kick the proverbial can down the road. 

And that bill always comes due. But what if the Bears have loads more cap space when the bill comes due thanks to lucrative new TV deals signed a few years after the CBA is ratified?

A new CBA would likely immediately increase 2020's salary cap (the Athletic estimated a $5 million increase per team). But the best way for the Bears to create more cap space in 2020 is by borrowing from the Bank of Khalil. 

The Bears could create about $10 million in cap space by converting some of Mack’s base salary into a signing bonus, per Spotrac, and could also do the same with the contracts of Eddie Goldman, Kyle Fuller, Cody Whitehair and Akiem Hicks, if they so chose. 

The Bears would save a total of about $22.5 million in 2020 cap space by restructuring all five of those contracts. Add in a contract extension for Allen Robinson that could save a few million in 2020 and the Bears wind up with over $50 million in cap space this year. 

That’s a lot of cans to kick down the road, and it’s not without risk (injuries, age-based regression, etc.). It's also crazily aggressive, but who knows what contracts will look like in 2022 or 2023. Paying Mack $26 million then might look like a bargain, even as he plays into his 30s.  

So the money is there if the Bears really want it, and are willing to place a big bet on their 2020 roster. This space of the interweb has mostly been reserved for preaching the Bears’ need for salary cap prudence this offseason; it’s part of the reason why the expectation still is for Ryan Pace to target a backup who can “compete” with Mitch Trubisky, not a guy to start over him. 

But maybe the Bears can shop in a different aisle for that second quarterback. Instead of targeting a Case Keenum-type on a cheap, one-year contract, perhaps the Bears can pry Andy Dalton away from the Cincinnati Bengals and not worry about his $17.7 million cap hit. 

Maybe it means offering a contract to the guard or tight end Pace and Matt Nagy want, not the one they can afford. Needs at inside linebacker, cornerback and/or safety could be more readily addressed before the draft, freeing Pace up to actually stick to his “best player available” mantra. 

There is hope here if you want the Bears to be more aggressive in free agency than their current amount of cap space suggests they will be. That doesn’t mean the Bears are going to follow this path, though. The new CBA needs to be ratified first, of course, and maybe that immediately drives up prices in the free agent market, leaving the Bears in the same position they’re in now. 

But the Bears do have a way to inflate their salary cap balloon, and if they do, they might not need to totally worry about it popping a few years from now. It all depends on if the new CBA is ratified or not before the new league year begins in mid-March. 

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