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.