Bears RB draft preview: Depth thin for run-based offense


Bears RB draft preview: Depth thin for run-based offense Bears Insider John "Moon" Mullin goes position by position as the Bears approach the 2015 Draft, taking a look at what the Bears have, what they might need and what draft day could have in store.

Bears pre-draft situation

Matt Forte is entering the final year of his contract and has established himself as one of the great running backs in the history of a franchise with a number of elite runners to its credit. Since entering the league as a second-round pick in 2008, Forte ranks No. 1 in yards from scrimmage and set an NFL record for receptions by a running back (102) last season while still netting 1,038 yards rushing yards.

Forte gave and continues to give elite one-size-fits-all consistency at the position. He is a unique back with a record of success in myriad offensive systems: 1,000-yard rushing seasons under four different coordinators. He also has been the definition of durable, starting 16 games in five of his seven seasons.

The Bears used a fourth-round pick last season on Ka’Deem Carey out of Arizona but he was a virtual non-factor: 36 total carries through 14 games, then not seeing the field in the final two. He worked throughout the year on improving pass protection, which he did, but coaches were reluctant to trust his grasp of the playbook. His high point of 14 carries for 72 yards came vs. Green Bay but he was unable to establish himself as an adequate alternative or relief for Forte.

The Bears picked up Jacquizz Rodgers, a smallish (5-6) speed-back, originally a fifth-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons in 2011. He was Pac-12 offensive player of the year in 2008, a distinction also won by Carey (2013).

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Bears draft priority: Moderate

Forte’s outlook at age 29 (turning 30 in December) with some mileage is a question, and Carey had too few chances as a rookie to show whether he is or isn’t an NFL running back.

This all matters a great deal given coach John Fox’s stated intention to rely on the run game, something Marc Trestman paid lip service to but then was about 65:35 pass:run. Taking Fox at his word, the Bears may not have their long-term situation set at this position.

When Fox was at Carolina, the Panthers went heavily on defense with top picks but also placed enough of a premium on the running-back position to invest No. 1’s at the position in 2006 (DeAngelo Williams) and 2008 (Jonathan Stewart), and those after using at No. 2 there in 2005 (Eric Shelton). Perhaps more relevant to the Bears’ current situation, Fox’s Panthers used two No. 4 picks on running backs in 2009 (Mike Goodson, Tony Fiammetta).

The “value” running back position has been a debated topic (not as far as Forte is concerned, however) and the new Fox-Ryan Pace regime has some solid run offenses in its collective background.

[BEARS DRAFT PREVIEW: Looking for answers beyond Jay Cutler

Keep an eye on ...

Javorious Allen, USC: Likely gone by rd. 4 but a 221-pound producer in the Forte mold.

Dominique Brown, Louisville: Power back (234 pounds) in the mold of Michael Bush, alternative to Forte.

Jeremy Langford, Michigan State: Shorter (5-9) than the norm but had two productive seasons replacing Le’Veon Bell.

Why what 'Run DMC' does catching passes in training camp will be a big clue for how good the Bears' offense will be

Why what 'Run DMC' does catching passes in training camp will be a big clue for how good the Bears' offense will be

How much better Mitch Trubisky will be is the defining question for the 2019 Bears. But we won’t begin to know the answer to that question until September — it’s not something that’ll be easily discernible during training camp practices in Bourbonnais or a handful of snaps in preseason games. Those can sometimes produce false positives and false negatives.

The Bears believe in Trubiskiy, of course, and you’ll likely hear Matt Nagy and players laud their quarterback’s growth over the coming weeks. But belief is one thing; tangible production is another. And we won’t truly get to see that growth until the night of Sept. 5 at Soldier Field. 

But there are a few things to look for in Bourbonnais that could clue us in that a big-time leap is coming for No. 10. We’ll begin this mini-series leading up to the start of training camp next week with this: Better success from running backs catching passes on first down. 

It’s a narrowly specific angle, but one that carries plenty of weight. Consider this excerpt from Warren Sharp’s 2019 Football Preview:

“First down has long been perceived as a running down. In 2017, the league-wide average run-pass split on first down was 47-53. It was 50-50 last season, but that was still well below the 59-41 league-wide split on all downs. Yet passing to running backs on first down is significantly more effective.

“In 2018, there were 6,248 running back rushing attempts on first down. They averaged 4.5 yards per carry, minus-0.01 Expected Points Added per attempt, and a positive play rate of 41.3%. When teams threw to running backs on first down, they averaged 6.02 yards per target, 7.8 yards per receptions. 0.08 EPA per attempt — slightly more efficient than the average of all passes regardless of down at 0.05 EPA — and a positive play rate of 52.3%.”

The larger point here (especially if your eyes glazed over some of those numbers — which, we promise, make sense) is this: Scheming more throws to running backs on first down is an area in which almost every team in the NFL can improve. It's worth noting the Kansas City Chiefs' most effective play on first-and-long in 2018, per Sharp, was a pass to Kareem Hunt. 

And the good news is the Bears re-worked their running back room in a way that could optimize their success throwing the ball to David Montgomery, Mike Davis and Tarik Cohen on first down. 

The 2018 Bears simply didn’t have the personnel to do that regularly or successfully.

Jordan Howard was only targeted nine times on first-and-10, catching five passes for 42 yards. All nine of those targets were short throws, either to the left (two), middle (one) or right (six), and Trubisky had a passer rating of 83 on those attempts. Meanwhile, Howard carried the ball 128 times on first-and-10, averaging 3.7 yards per carry and only generating nine first downs (the NFL average for rushing attempts on first-and-10 in 2018 was 4.7 yards per carry). 

Cohen was, roughly, the inverse of Howard’s numbers: He caught 30 of 37 targets for 241 yards (6.5 yards per target) and generated seven first downs through the air, but averaged just 3.2 yards on his 46 rushing attempts with four first downs. Neither player was particularly balanced in these scenarios: Howard was mildly ineffective running the ball and not a threat catching it; Cohen was largely ineffective running the ball but was a threat catching it. 

And for the crowd who still believes Nagy wasn’t willing to establish the run: The combined rushing attempts on first-and-10 of Howard, Cohen, Benny Cunningham and Taquan Mizzell totaled 182; the combined pass attempts by Trubisky and Chase Daniel in that down-and-distance was 176, per Pro Football Reference’s play index. 

The Bears, in 2018, averaged 5.5 yards per play on first-and-10, tied for 24th in the NFL. Yet only three teams — the New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts — averaged fewer yards-to-go on third down than the Bears’ mark of 6.9. That’s a sign of Nagy’s playcalling prowess and the talent on this offense, and it’s not a stretch to argue an improvement of first-and-10 success will have a significant impact on the overall success of the Bears’ offense. 

So back to the initial point about passes to running backs in these situations: The Bears believe both Montgomery and Davis have some untapped potential as pass-catching running backs. Montgomery caught 71 passes in college at Iowa State, while Davis was targeted the most by the Seattle Seahawks in 2018 on first down (17 of 42 targets). Cohen, of course, is already an accomplished pass-catcher. 

The “Run DMC” backfield needs to have more success carrying the ball on first-and-10 than last year’s group did, of course. But if you’re in Bourbonnais or watching a preseason game, keep an eye out for how effective the Bears are at passing to their running backs — especially if those passes travel beyond the line of scrimmage (another inefficiency noted by Warren Sharp's 2019 Football Preview). 

If you start seeing Montgomery making defenders miss after catching a pass, or Davis looking fluid with the ball in his hands, or Cohen breaking off some explosive gains — those will be significant reasons to believe in Trubisky and the Bears' offense in 2019. 

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Under Center Podcast: State of the Bears: Defense


Under Center Podcast: State of the Bears: Defense

JJ Stankevitz, Cam Ellis and Paul Aspan are back with their training camp preview of the Bears' defense, looking at if it's fair to expect this group to take a step back without Vic Fangio (2:00) or if it's possible to repeat as the league's No. 1 defense (10:00). Plus, the guys look at which players the Bears need to improve to remain one of the NFL's best defenses (15:15), debate if Leonard Floyd can be better (20:00) and look at the future of the defense as a salary cap crunch looms after 2019 (25:00). 

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below: