The Bears don’t need Mike Davis to be the solution to their inconsistent running game. A part of the solution? Sure. But teams generally don’t count on offensive or defensive players signed for two years and $7 million to be the primary solution to a problem.
For comparison’s sake, that two-year deal worth a maximum of $7 million is the same one to which the New York Jets will reportedly sign Josh Bellamy, who previously was a core special teamer and fourth receiver for the Bears.
Davis’ reported deal — which can’t become official until Wednesday at 3 p.m. — carries with it a few key implications for the Bears’ running game in 2019. Some thoughts:
1. The Bears don’t absolutely have to trade or release Jordan Howard.
Signing a higher-priced running back, like Le’Veon Bell or Tevin Coleman or even Mark Ingram, all but assuredly would’ve been a precursor to the end of Howard’s tenure in Chicago. Howard carries a cap hit of a little over $2 million in 2019; if he, Davis, Tarik Cohen and a fourth running back/draft pick combine for between $6.5-$7 million in cap space, that’s a palatable amount. As things stand now — before any of the big-name running backs sign — that figure would rank somewhere near the middle of running back spending.
Even bringing back Benny Cunningham (mostly as a special teamer) for, say, another $1 million wouldn’t tip the scales to over-spending at running back. So the Bears could feasibly keep Howard on their roster as a reliable goal-line option — he scored nine touchdowns last year, after all — and as a decent insurance option if Davis and/or a draft pick falters.
Still, if the Bears use a draft pick on a running back — especially with a third or fourth-round pick — that could make keeping Howard less tenable. Davis/Cohen/Howard/pick would make up a crowded depth chart; Howard certainly would be the most likely to go of that group.
2. Davis has some intriguing traits.
Granted, reading into one play can be a bit of a stretch, but this 20-yard touchdown run surely made it to the desks of Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy as they were evaluating tape of available running backs:
Consider what Nagy said he’s looking for in a running back at the NFL Combine last month:
“In this offense, you want to be able to have a guy that has really good vision that can make guys miss,” Nagy said. “And at the same time, there's that balance of being a hybrid being able to make things happen in the pass game too, but yet to where you're not one-dimensional. That's not easy.”
Taking a flier on Davis to be that guy seems sensible given the price. He’ll be 26 this season and doesn’t come with the wear and tear of a higher-priced guy like Ingram or Bell; he only has 234 rushing attempts in four-year his career, which is 16 fewer than Howard had in 2018’s regular season. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry in 2018 and caught 34 of 42 targets for 214 yards.
Of course, Davis’ lack of a track record means projecting his future is more difficult. But what Davis put on tape is more important than his previous stats with the Seattle Seahawks (2017-2018) and San Francisco 49ers (2015-2016). Given how quickly the Bears moved to sign Davis, he likely checked off boxes of being 1) a good scheme fit and 2) inexpensive.
3. The Bears can still draft a running back.
Davis’ signing fits with Pace’s year-to-year roster building philosophy, which ends with a “best player available” approach in the draft. Just because he’s signs a free agent doesn’t mean he won’t draft a player at that same position — in 2017, the Bears signed Quintin Demps and drafted Eddie Jackson; more famously, they signed Mike Glennon and drafted Mitch Trubisky.
Given Pace’s best-available draft strategy, the Bears were never guaranteed to take a running back with their third-round pick in April. Chances are, they’ll take someone over the course of the final day of the draft, and signing Davis will not preclude them from doing so.
What’s clear, though, is the Bears weren’t comfortable standing pat with their running back depth chart before April’s draft, but perhaps also weren’t comfortable spending more to lure a bigger name like Ingram/Coleman/Bell. We’ll see what contracts that trio receives in the coming hours, and if any of them might make the Davis deal look better — or worse.