Three questions for Bears RBs: How will Jordan Howard fit Matt Nagy’s offense?

Three questions for Bears RBs: How will Jordan Howard fit Matt Nagy’s offense?


Pre-camp depth chart

1. Jordan Howard
2. Tarik Cohen
3. Benny Cunningham
4. Michael Burton (FB)
5. Taquan Mizzell
6. Ryan Nall

1. Can Jordan Howard catch?

Howard’s rushing ability is hardly in question, and the only running back in Bears history with consecutive 1,000-yard seasons to begin his career will certainly have a place in Nagy’s spiced-up west coast offense. But how big a place will depend largely on how much progress he makes as a pass-catcher before Week 1.

“When you have a multitude of guys that can do those things, one of the things I believe in is trying to really hone in on what their weaknesses are or what we perceive their weaknesses to be,” Nagy said in May. “For each player then we try to really work on that right now in the offseason. We all know he can run the football and he fits well in this offense.”

All the extra coaching Howard received and will receive — pun sort of intended — makes it abundantly clear what he has to prove in July and August. The Bears don’t necessarily need him to be a dynamic dual threat running back, but they do need him to be more reliable catching the ball than his 14 drops in 78 career targets would suggest.

For Howard, there isn’t just a playing time incentive for improving his pass-catching skills; there’s a financial one too for a guy who only has two years left on his rookie contract. Even a mild reduction in snaps and, by virtue of that, production could hurt Howard’s chances of getting a second contract with the Bears, and could put him in a difficult position going into 2019.

But this is all a moot point if Howard proves he can catch, or has a season good enough on the ground that the Bears’ offense still operates well with him on the field. Howard isn’t in danger of losing his job anytime soon, but he’s also not the unquestioned No. 1 running back heading into training camp. And that’s because…

2. How much bigger will Tarik Cohen’s role be?

…Cohen established himself as an explosive playmaking threat in 2017, and should earn more opportunities to get on the field this year than he did in Dowell Loggains and John Fox’s offense. Cohen was on the field for only 36 percent of the Bears’ offensive snaps last year, a percentage that’s sure to be higher in Nagy’s offense.

“He’s a good fit, lots of energy,” Nagy said. “You can put him in a lot of different places, that’s obvious. But you need to balance that. You need to make sure that you’re not doing too much to where you slow him down because he’s not thinking. He’s an athletic kid that does a lot of things well. We’ll have some fun with him.”

That Nagy talked about having to pull back on Cohen’s responsibilities is telling — he can do so much that the coaching staff will have to figure out what to focus on to make sure they don’t overload him. But Cohen is eager to take on a larger workload, whether it’s as a running back, the “Zebra” receiver or the “Z” receiver in Nagy’s offense, as well as still playing a role in the return game on special teams. And he’s shown the intelligence and work ethic to succeed in every area of the game in which he’s used.

Cohen may slice into Howard’s snap counts to some extent, but even if it’s minimal, expect the 5-foot-6 dynamo to be on the field plenty more this year — starting with wowing onlookers again in Bourbonnais.

3. Will Nagy’s offense benefit Howard?

Back to Howard for one final note. Only six running backs rushed against a higher percentage of stacked boxes (with eight or more defenders) than Howard did in 2017, and two of those guys — New England’s Mike Gillislee and Carolina’s Jonathan Stewart — are short-yardage power specialists. Among feature running backs, the 43.12 percent of Howard’s runs that came with eight or more men in the box ranked behind only the Jaguars’ Leonard Fournette (48.69 percent) and the Giants’ Orleans Darkwa (44.44 percent, although Darkwa’s “feature” status could be debatable).

Anyways, the point here is this: The dynamic nature of Nagy’s offense means Howard shouldn’t be facing nearly as many stacked boxes. If the Bears use two tight ends — say, Dion Sims and Trey Burton — opposing defenses can’t stack the box, because Burton could beat them down the seam. If the Bears have three receivers, a tight end and a running back on the field, defenses would have to go into nickel, and could allow Howard to pound the ball on the ground. The Bears didn’t have that flexibility last year with an uninspiring group of wide receivers and an underperforming tight end group (especially after Zach Miller’s horrific injury in Week 8).

So Howard’s production should benefit from the Bears’ offense not being predictable when he’s on the field. Only 23.53 percent of Kareem Hunt’s rushing attempts with Kansas City last year came with eight or more men in the box; he rushed for a league-leading 1,327 yards on 272 attempts (4.9 yards/attempt). Howard rushed for 1,122 yards on 276 attempts (4.1 yards/attempt), so even if his attempts were to go down to, say, 210, if he averaged 4.9 yards per carry he’d still eclipse 1,000 yards for the third consecutive year.

Is Jordan Howard underrated in fantasy football?

USA Today

Is Jordan Howard underrated in fantasy football?

Jordan Howard has accomplished some pretty amazing things to start his career. Most notably, he's the only running back in Chicago Bears franchise history to finish his first two seasons with more than 1,000 rushing yards, including 1,313 yards as a rookie, good for a team rookie record.

Still, Howard has been the target of criticism this offseason because of his questionable set of hands. He was plagued by a case of the drops last season and he's been labeled as a guy who can't catch the ball heading into 2018. Combine that with the player nipping at his heels -- Tarik Cohen -- and the overwhelming theory advanced by analysts is that he'll give way to Cohen on passing downs.

This presumption has made its way into the world of fantasy football, too. Howard is rarely if ever mentioned as one of the first running backs that should be drafted this summer and in a recent player vs. player showdown on Pro Football Focus, 49ers starter Jerick McKinnon was selected as a more appealing fantasy starter in 2018.

It’s close, but I give the nod to Jerick McKinnon. Howard’s troubles in the passing game are very real and it’s clear the Bears want to focus on that more this year. Meanwhile, McKinnon was handed a fat contract and has little competition when it comes to carries.

McKinnon, a career backup, was signed by San Franciso to be Kyle Shanahan's feature running back. He has a real chance to be a stud in fantasy circles, but should he be valued over a guy like Howard who's proven to be a contender for the NFL's rushing crown?

All of this offseason chatter will serve as great motivation for Howard who has to prove, first and foremost, that he can be a three-down back for coach Matt Nagy in the Bears' new offense. If he has a consistent training camp as a receiver and carries that momentum into the preseason and regular season, those fantasy players who draft McKinnon or another less-proven player over Howard will long for a redo.

15 Most Important Bears of 2018: No. 8 - Eddie Goldman

15 Most Important Bears of 2018: No. 8 - Eddie Goldman

Eddie Goldman is entering the final year of his contract this season and in order to cash in on a big payday, he'll need to stay healthy and make good on his top-tier potential. 

If he does, he'll become a very wealthy man and the Bears defense will have an even better year than its top-10 finish a season ago.

Goldman, 24, came to Chicago via the second round of the 2015 NFL draft and quickly became a household name among Bears fans. He started 12 games that season and finished with a surprising 4 1/2 sacks, a total that was more productive than his college scouting report predicted. He was pegged as a breakout star for 2016, but injuries ultimately derailed his second season. He played only six games that year (started five) but still flashed a surprisingly productive set of pass-rush traits; he finished 2016 with 2 1/2 sacks.

This past season represented something of a mixed bag for Goldman. He started 15 games and quieted some of the injury concerns that started bubbling around him, but his production dipped. He managed only 1 1/2 sacks. That said, he set a career-high with 27 tackles, nearly doubling his output as a rookie.

Still, Goldman wasn't a dominant force in 2017. He finished the year ranked 69th among interior defenders with a 76.3 grade from Pro Football Focus. Despite being healthy and available, it was the lowest season grade of his career from PFF.

Nose tackle is arguably the most critical position for any defense running a 3-4 scheme. It's no exception in Chicago. Goldman will set the table for linebackers Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith and the more bodies he can consume or attention he can draw from offensive lines, the more room second-level defenders will have to work. It's not just about filling up the stat sheet for Goldman. If he clogs running lanes and collapses the pocket consistently, he'll be worth every penny of a big contract extension despite lacking numbers.

The Bears need Goldman to bring his A-game in 2018, especially as a pass rusher. Chicago resides in arguably the most talented quarterback division in the NFL and for the defense to make those quarterbacks uncomfortable, Goldman has to apply pressure up the middle. He's proven he can do it, as evidenced by his rookie year production. But he's been on a steady decline in this area of his game since then and there's no room for more regression in 2018.

Players entering contract years tend to bring extra motivation to the field and there's no reason to expect anything less from Goldman. If he can combine his rookie year production with last season's availability, he could end up with the most well-rounded year of his career en route to leading the Bears' defensive line on a late-season playoff push.