No Chicago Bears running back has ever had a better start to their career than Jordan Howard. He's the only player in team history to start a career with back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons, an accomplishment made even more impressive when considering the storied tradition Chicago has at the position, including legends like Walter Payton and Gale Sayers.

Still, Howard remains somewhat underappreciated. His offseason has been filled with questions about how he'll fit in coach Matt Nagy's offense and whether he'll slowly cede reps to Tarik Cohen.

This has been the story of the former fifth-round pick's career. He was selected in 2016 to be a power complement to then-starter Jeremy Langford and wasn't projected as a feature back in pre-draft scouting reports. Even when he started stacking productive games as a rookie, doubt remained whether he can be an offense's bell-cow. The coaching staff, led by John Fox and Dowell Loggains, followed up Howard's back-to-back 100-yard games in Weeks 3 and 4 of his rookie season with only 22 carries (total) in Weeks 5 and 6. 

Talent can't be denied, however. Howard proved that in 2016. Once the coaching staff committed to him as the feature runner, the rest was history. He finished his first season ranked second in the NFL in rushing yards (1,313) and finished 2017 with 1,122 yards and a career-high nine touchdowns. 

This season will offer a new set of challenges for Howard despite the clear and convincing evidence that he's a top-10 running back in the NFL. He'll rise to the occasion and have another productive year. 

 

There's reason for confidence in Howard's expected success. Last year's leading rusher, Kareem Hunt, flourished in Nagy's system and -- as a runner -- has a similar style and skill set to Howard. Both players run with good pad level, quick and decisive feet and very good vision. Neither is a blazer (Hunt ran a 4.62 40-yard dash at the 2017 NFL Combine; Howard ran a 4.59 at his Pro Day) but they make up for their speed with very good burst through the hole. They share a similarly strong lower body that's powerful enough to break through arm tackles. Howard's a bigger guy, checking in at 6-foot, 230 pounds while Hunt is 5-10, 216.

Howard isn't a newbie in this system, either. He thrived in a comparable offense during his final collegiate season at Indiana where he rushed for 1,213 yards and nine touchdowns. He averaged 6.2 yards-per-carry that year and is excited about having the opportunity to work in space again. 

“I like coach Nagy putting me in space and the different ways he uses running backs," Howard told Pro Football Weekly. "They can catch a lot of passes and run for a lot of yards. I mean, Kareem Hunt led the league in rushing, so it’s pretty exciting.”

Will Howard end up leading the league in rushing? Probably not. The Bears have something the Chiefs didn't last season: Cohen. 

The second-year back is going to get his touches. In fact, he's going to have touches manufactured for him even if they're not traditional running plays in traditional running situations. Those reps will cut into some of Howard's.

Hunt carried the ball 272 times for the Chiefs last year. The next closest running back to him in touches was Charcandrick West (18 carries.) There's no way the gap between Howard and Cohen will be that significant in 2018.

Last year, Howard carried the ball 276 times to Cohen's 87. The Bears ran the ball a total of 422 times with Howard responsible for 65 percent of the rushing attempts. 

Nagy was instrumental in Kansas City's playcalling last season when the Chiefs ran the ball a total of 405 times. Hunt accounted for 67 percent of the total attempts. A season earlier, Spencer Ware led Chiefs' running backs with 214 carries out of 412 total attempts, or 51 percent of the running game.

If we split Kansas City's last two seasons down the middle in an effort to account for Cohen, Howard should see roughly 60 percent of the team's total rushing attempts in 2018. Assuming the Bears run the ball 410 times, he should log at least 246 carries.

Hunt averaged 4.9 yards-per-carry for the Chiefs last season; Ware churned 4.3 yards-per-tote a year earlier. There's no doubt Howard is at least as talented as Hunt and he's proven to be a productive running back on a per-touch-basis over his first two years. He averaged 5.2 yards-per-carry as a rookie and 4.1 last year. It's a safe estimate to say Howard will hover around 4.5 yards-per-carry in 2018.

Assuming Howard logs 246 carries, he should end the season with at least 1,107 yards. It would be the lowest output of his career so far, but still a commendable season and an incredible accomplishment to go three-straight seasons over the 1,000-yard mark.

 

Howard will be the primary goal-line back and should once again be close to 10 touchdowns on the ground.

The biggest question surrounding Howard in 2018 is how he'll fare as a receiver out of the backfield.

Part of what made Hunt so special last season was his ability to contribute both as a runner and pass-catcher. His dual skill set allowed him to stay on the field as a three-down back and gave him more reps to produce. He had 53 catches for 455 yards and three scores. By contrast, Howard has 52 catches for 423 yards and one touchdown through two seasons combined.

Howard isn't the kind of receiver Hunt is. At least, not yet. He received a 39.0 receiving grade on 210 passing snaps from Pro Football Focus last season while Hunt registered a 78.3 on 342 reps. It's a huge difference in their games and a primary reason why Cohen is expected to take Howard off the field more times than Hunt was, especially if Howard has some early-season drops.

Regardless of Howard's past struggles, he should, by default, have an uptick in production as a receiver.

Hunt was targeted 63 times last season compared to Howard's 32. The difference of 31 attempts to the running back should mostly end up in Cohen's direction, but, for argument's sake, let's say Howard's targets increase by 10 for a total of 42 next season.  He caught 72 percent of his targets last year and only 58 percent as a rookie. Splitting the difference, Howard should grab 65 percent of his 42 targets for a total of 27 receptions. Assuming he matches Hunt's 8.6 yards per reception, a season of 232 receiving yards seems likely.

There's good reason to be excited about Howard's ability to thrive in Nagy's system. And his production, while maybe down a bit from his previous two seasons, will not be indicative of a diminishing skill set. Instead, it's more about Cohen's increased role and expected usage.

A reasonable projection for Howard's production in 2018 comes down to this: 1,107 yards rushing, 232 yards receiving and 10 total touchdowns. Good, not great, numbers in a critical year for Howard who is looking forward to earning his second (and more lucrative) contract from the Bears by the end of 2019.