Maybe this is what happens when a team is coming off a 5-11 season and has won only 14 games over three years. Maybe it's just another example of the Chicago Bears being overlooked and underrated. Regardless of the 'why,' a recent poll of NFL experts has provided more fuel for the Bears in 2018.
ESPN's Field Yates asked 43 insiders and former players for their list of the top under-25-year-old starters in the NFL and not a single Chicago Bear made the cut.
No Jordan Howard. No Mitchell Trubisky. No Allen Robinson.
Not a single Bear.
The most shocking omission is Howard, who finished second in the NFL in rushing in 2016 and sixth last year despite facing defenses that focused their entire game plan on stopping him every single week. At only 23 years old, he's clearly one of the top young running backs in the NFL and warranted a spot on this list.
Instead, the Rams' Todd Gurley, Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott and Giants rookie Saquon Barkley got the nod.
Howard has more rushing yards than Gurley over the last two seasons and trails Elliott by only 179. Barkley has yet to take a snap in the NFL.
The Bears were recently named the most underrated team in the league heading into 2018 and this is just another piece of evidence justifying that claim. A winning season will change the national perception of players like Howard, who with another year of high-end production should find himself at or near the top of many of these lists next offseason.
The Chicago Bears won the 2018 offseason. General manager Ryan Pace made several headline-grabbing moves that focused on rebuilding an offense that finished as one of the NFL's worst in 2017.
The biggest changes come at wide receiver where Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Anthony Miller were added in free agency and the NFL draft. All three will be big-time contributors in coach Matt Nagy's offense. And don't forget about former first-round pick Kevin White. He's had a great offseason and may finally be ready to become the player Pace envisioned when he selected him seventh overall in 2015.
Pace and the Bears have been praised for their efforts since free agency and now, on the eve of training camp, the new-look offense is regarded as one of the top-10 offensive arsenals in the NFL. But it's not necessarily the new names that have outlets like ESPN so excited. Instead, it's the return of one of the league's top young backfields that gives Chicago a leg up on the competition.
What pushes the Bears up these rankings is their one-two punch at halfback. Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen will combine to post a cap hit of about $1.4 million in 2018 and might very well project to be the best pair of running backs in football, if Ingram and Kamara slip. Cohen's versatility seems far more likely to be rewarded by Nagy than it was by departed offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains.
The Bears' running game was effective in 2017 even without a downfield passing threat. Howard finished the year sixth in rushing and was facing stacked boxes week in and week out. When factoring talents like Robinson, Gabriel and Burton into a more creative passing attack this season, the upside -- all around -- for Chicago's offense is higher than it's been in many, many years.
Jordan Howard's offseason has been full of questions about his hands.
There's no doubt he can run the ball like many of the NFL's top-tier running backs, but in order for him -- and the Bears offense -- to reach expectations that have come with the hiring of coach Matt Nagy, he has to prove he can be a reliable receiver.
Howard understands how important it is to make an early impression as a pass-catcher this season. In 2017, Howard had Pro Football Focus' second-worst grade among running backs in the passing game. Tarik Cohen, on the other hand, was tied for sixth-best. If Howard wants to be a three-down back (in theory), he has to make the most of his targets.
As a runner, few backs have been more productive than Howard since 2016. He finished second in the NFL in rushing in 2016 and was sixth last year. Howard tied for fourth in the league in rushing touchdowns in 2017 with nine. Simply put, he's a true first and second-down back who can carry a running game in any scheme.
Speaking of schemes, Nagy will bring a very different offense than the one Howard's thrived in through his first two years in the league. That's not a bad thing; Howard played in a similar system at Indiana where he ran for over 1,200 yards (6.2 yards per carry) and nine touchdowns. It's also the same system that allowed Kareem Hunt to win the rushing crown in Kansas City last year. Howard will find success, there's little doubt about that.
Howard's importance to the Bears is understated. He will wear down defenses and protect leads. He will convert in short-yardage situations and be a beast in the red zone. He'll be the kind of running back the coaching staff doesn't have to worry about when they call his number in the running game. If he can build that same level of trust as a receiver, he could end up with the best year of his career and a lot of leverage as he jockeys for a new long-term contract.