Bears

Numbers game: What recent data tells us about expectations for David Montgomery and Kerrith Whyte Jr. 

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USA Today

Numbers game: What recent data tells us about expectations for David Montgomery and Kerrith Whyte Jr. 


A line has often been drawn between David Montgomery and Kareem Hunt, with the Bears’ third-round pick’s current and former coaches making that favorable skillset comparison. Both have similar running styles, both are adept pass-catchers, both were third round picks, both played for the same coaching staff in college, etc. 
 
“There are some clips that you can go back and forth and watch and say man, (Montgomery) kind of reminds me of Kareem," Iowa State offensive coordinator Tom Manning said. "And you go back to cuts from (Hunt) too and you’re like man, that’s kind of strange, it looks a little like David there in that sense. They’re different, but I do think there are some similarities.”


The Montgomery-to-Hunt comparison carries with it lofty expectations. Hunt’s dynamic rookie year — under the watch of then-Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy — saw him gain a league-leading 1,327 yards on 272 carries (4.9 yards per attempt) with eight touchdowns, as well as catch 53 passes for 455 yards with three touchdowns. That level of production is the dream scenario for the Bears with Montgomery.

Hunt’s rookie year was, clearly, well above average. But how much above average was it? That was the question this article set out to answer. We wanted to build a baseline for what Montgomery’s rookie expectations should be. What it turned into was a dive into how all 257 rookie running backs who were on a 53-man roster in the last seven seasons fared, from Saquon Barkley to Taquan Mizzell. 

We’ll start here: Only running backs whose rookie seasons fell from 2012-2018 were included, given 2012 was the first draft conducted under the league’s new collective bargaining agreement. Plus, it’s recent enough to account for the NFL’s gradual (but hardly total) shift away from placing a high value on running backs. 

Receiving stats weren’t taken into account here, given how different offenses use different running backs in the receiving game — and how the Bears can reasonably expect Montgomery to be an above-average pass-catcher as a rookie. So only running statistics were used, which also hold the most importance for the 2019 Bears after Jordan Howard’s uneven 2018 season. 

Also, compiling these numbers wouldn't have been possible without the essential Pro Football Reference Play Index. 

Beginning with a wide lens, the average production for a rookie running back over the last seven years — drafted or undrafted — is 56 carries for 243 yards (4.3 yards per attempt) with 1 1/2 touchdowns. But that’s not a totally useful measuring stick, given it includes 121 undrafted free agents, and 47 of those UDFAs didn’t receive a single carry in their rookie seasons. 

The 136 running backs who were drafted from 2012-2018 have a meatier average: 88 carries, 371 yards, 4.2 yards per carry, 2 1/2 touchdowns. Or, another way: That’s about a third of Howard’s 2018 totals (250 carries, 935 yards, 9 touchdowns) while improving his average yards per carry by a half yard. 

Drilling deeper: Third round running backs — 18 players, highlighted by Hunt — put together an average season of 108 attempts, 473 yards (4.4 yards per attempt) and 2.9 touchdowns. That feels like a good starting point for Montgomery, especially if he’s being used as part of a time-share with Mike Davis and Tarik Cohen. 

Perhaps something closer to what Arizona’s David Johnson did his rookie year is better, adding a few more carries and removing a couple of touchdowns (125 carries, 581 yards, 4.7 yards per carry, 8 touchdowns). If that’s what Montgomery winds up doing in 2019, it’ll be an improvement over Howard — and an even more pronounced one if Davis winds up being effective, too. 

What about Kerrith Whyte Jr.?

The thought here is we’ll see Whyte battle with Mizzell in the coming weeks and months for a roster spot that carries with it a small role in Nagy’s offense (Mizzell, for all the consternation about him, only played 6.5 percent of the Bears’ offensive snaps in 2018). He’s not the first, second or third option, but as a speedy change-of-pace guy he does carry some intrigue as another weapon in Nagy’s arsenal. 

It’s rare for seventh round running backs to make much of an impact on the ground their rookie years, with the Eagles’ Bryce Brown having the best season not only in this timespan, but in the last 20 years, with 564 yards on 115 carries (4.9 yards/attempt) with four touchdowns in 2012. Only four of the 18 seventh round running backs in the last seven seasons have averaged more than four yards per carry. 

Round-by-round data

Ryan Pace has picked a running back in the third round (Montgomery), fourth round twice (Cohen, Jeremy Langford), fifth round (Howard) and seventh round (Whyte) during his five years as Bears’ general manager. The three guys who’ve played — Langford, Howard, Cohen — were all rookie-year successes, to varying extents: Howard’s 1,313 yards in 2016 are the sixth-most for a rookie running back since 2012; only two fourth-round picks in the same timespan rushed for more yards than Langford’s 537 in 2015 (Andre Williams, Samaje Perine). Cohen’s impact, of course, goes beyond his on-the-ground production. 

The point here being that Pace has a track record of finding productive mid-round running backs, even if we’re only talking about three players here. That’s a good skill for a general manager to have; plenty smart observers consider it wasteful to use a first round pick on a running back, let alone a top 10 selection, which Pace had in his first four drafts. 

Naturally, though, it’s easier to find an immediately productive running back earlier in the draft than later. But that there have been standout players to come from nearly every round of the draft (and from the undrafted free agent pool) bolsters the compelling case for not using high picks on running backs. The round-by-round averages are:

First round (11 players): 212 attempts, 934 yards, 4.4 YPC, 7.4 TDs
Best season: Ezekiel Elliott (322 attempts, 1,631 yards, 5.1 YPC, 15 TDs)

Second round (19 players): 135 attempts, 572 yards, 4.2 YPC, 4.2 TDs
Best season: Jeremy Hill (222 attempts, 1,124 yards, 5.1 YPC, 9 TDs)

Third round (18 players): 108 attempts, 473 yards, 4.4 YPC, 2.9 TDs
Best season: Kareem Hunt (272 attempts, 1,327 yards, 4.9 YPC, 8 TDs)

Fourth round (26 players): 82 attempts, 312 yards, 3.8 YPC, 1.9 TDs
Best season: Andre Williams (217 attempts, 721 yards, 3.3 YPC, 7 TDs)
— Includes 1 player who did not receive a carry


Fifth round (22 players): 71 attempts, 310 yards, 4.4 YPC, 1.8 TDs
Best season: Jordan Howard (252 attempts, 1,313 yards, 5.2 YPC, 6 TDs
— Includes 2 players who did not receive a carry


Sixth round (23 players): 43 attempts, 183 yards, 4.3 YPC, 1.0 TDs
Best season: Alfred Morris (335 attempts, 1,613 yards, 4.8 YPC, 13 TDs)
— Includes 6 players who did not receive a carry


Seventh round (18 players): 28 attempts, 109 yards, 3.9 YPC, 0.6 TDs
Best season: Bryce Brown (115 attempts, 564 yards, 4.9 YPC, 4 TDs)
— Includes 5 players who did not a receive a carry


Undrafted free agent average (121 players): 20 attempts, 88 yards, 4.4 YPC, 0.5 TDs
Best season: Phillip Lindsay (192 carries, 1,037 yards, 5.4 YPC, 9 TDs)
— Includes 47 players who did not receive a carry


If you want a look at the full, raw data, click here.

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Should the Bears sign free agent running back Devonta Freeman?

Should the Bears sign free agent running back Devonta Freeman?

Former Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman remains unsigned after being released earlier this offseason following a 2019 season that totaled 14 games and a career-low 3.6 yards per carry.

Freeman, who earned back-to-back trips to the Pro Bowl in 2015-16, was at one time considered one of the NFL's top dual-threat running backs. His best season came in 2015 when he ran for 1,056 yards and 11 touchdowns while adding another 578 yards and three scores as a receiver. In 2016, he ran for a career-best 1,079 yards and 11 scores.

Injuries derailed what was a promising start to his career. He hasn't played a full 16 games in any of the last three years and in 2018, he missed 14 games with foot and groin injuries. 

Are Freeman's best days behind him? Maybe. Running backs tend to decline the closer they get to 30 years old, and at 28, Freeman is inching closer to the end of his career than its beginning. But that doesn't mean he doesn't have value for a team like the Bears, who lack any semblance of depth behind starter David Montgomery.

Chicago's running back depth chart is void of any real NFL talent behind Montgomery and Tarik Cohen, and let's face it, Cohen is more of a satellite weapon than he is a true running back.

So what's stopping the Bears from pursuing Freeman? Money.

Freeman is holding out for a reasonable payday that, apparently, involves demands beyond what the Seahawks offered in May (one-year, $4 million). The Bears, who still have in-house business to take care of, including an extension for wide receiver Allen Robinson, aren't going to offer Freeman a contract in that range. And they shouldn't. Montgomery is the unquestioned starter and that won't change even if a player like Freeman is added. As a result, he'll get a contract consistent with what's paid to a backup with starter's upside.

Remember: Freeman signed a five-year, $41.2 million extension with the Falcons in 2017, and like most players who believe they still have a lot left in the tank, he doesn't appear willing to lower his value by such an extreme amount.

Still, the market will determine Freeman's next deal. And if he's still hanging around and unsigned as training camp approaches, the Bears could find themselves in a favorable position to land an extremely talented running back at a mega-discount.

Chicago's offense will hinge on how productive the running game is in 2020. It would make sense to improve its chances of success by adding more talent. Freeman could be that guy, at the right price.

What would 1985 Chicago Bears look like if they played in 2020?

What would 1985 Chicago Bears look like if they played in 2020?

“We’re gonna do the shuffle then ring your bell,” sang Gary Fencik back in 1985. 

The updated lyrics in 2020 would be: “We’re gonna do the shuffle then get a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty.” 

Football today is a largely different game compared to when the Bears won their only Super Bowl in franchise history. You’ll see that when Super Bowl XX is aired on NBC this Sunday at 2 p.m. CT. But as I went back and watched some highlights ahead of catching the full game on Sunday, I wondered: What from the ’85 Bears would still work in the NFL today?

MORE: 10 crazy stats about the 1985 Bears

Talent, of course, transcends eras. Walter Payton would still be a great running back in 2020. Richard Dent would still be one of those pass rushers offenses have to gameplan around. Mike Singletary’s versatility, toughness and instincts would make him one of the league’s top linebackers. But that’s not what I was wondering. 

The Bears’ first offensive play of Super Bowl XX — on which Payton lost a fumble — came with two wide receivers, one tight end, one running back and one fullback on the field, otherwise known as 21 personnel. There was nothing odd about it back then. 

Only 8 percent of the NFL’s plays in 2019 used 21 personnel. 

The San Francisco 49ers and Minnesota Vikings were the only two teams to use 21 personnel on more than 20 percent of their plays, and both teams made the playoffs. Jimmy Garoppolo, remember, threw eight passes while the 49ers throttled the Green Bay Packers on their way to the Super Bowl back in January. 

Payton and Matt Suhey would’ve been just fine in today’s NFL running from under center quite a bit. But consider this: Jim McMahon’s passer rating in 1985 was 82.6, good for seventh-best in the league. Mitch Trubisky’s passer rating in 2019 was 83.0, ranking him 28th. 

How about Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense? 

I dug up this video we did a few years ago with Rex Ryan explaining his dad’s defense — which, while it turned out to be great at stopping the run, was actually designed to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Check it out:

The Bears’ defense in 1985 is, arguably, the best in NFL history. The Bears held opponents to 3.7 yards per carry and 12.4 points per game, the lowest averages in the league. Dent led the NFL with 17 1/2 sacks and, maybe the most mind-blowing stat of all: The Bears’ defense allowed 16 passing touchdowns and had 34 interceptions. 

But putting eight guys in the box doesn’t seem like a sound strategy in today’s pass-happy, 11 personnel-heavy league — a league that often forces defensive coordinators’ base packages to be in nickel. To wit: San Francisco’s Tevin Coleman faced the highest percentage of “loaded” boxes in 2019, with 40.2 percent of his 137 rushing attempts coming with eight or more defenders near the line of scrimmage. 

The Bears’ defense only had to defend multiple backs (i.e. a running back and a fullback) on 120 plays in 2019. 

So the 46 defense might not work in 2020. Then again, who would doubt Ryan’s ability to coordinate a good defense against today’s modern NFL landscape?

This is all building to my overarching feeling thinking about the 1985 Bears: They'd be fine in today's NFL. Greatness can transcend era. It might take a few tweaks and they wouldn't look the same as you'll see on NBC Sports Network on Sunday afternoon. 

But who am I to say one of the greatest teams of all time wouldn't be great in any era? 

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