Mike Davis

What do the Bears have in their running backs? They’re about to find out

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USA Today

What do the Bears have in their running backs? They’re about to find out

The Bears were pleased with what they saw from their overhauled running back room during non-padded OTA and minicamp practices during the spring, but consider that an incomplete evaluation. 

David Montgomery, in particular, impressed with his quickness, athleticism and route running. Nothing Mike Davis showed dissuaded the team from believing in the free agent signing’s untapped potential. Positive things were said about seventh-round pick Kerrith Whyte Jr. and second-year undrafted free agent Ryan Nall. 

The only running back returning from 2018’s unit is Tarik Cohen. But while Ryan Pace, Matt Nagy and the Bears’ talent evaluators did their homework on their new players, they won’t really get to see what they have until the pads come on in Bourbonnais (Nagy expects the first padded practice of training camp to be Sunday). 

“I know (Montgomery) kept asking coach, ‘when do we put the pads on?” Pace said. “And so we’re to that point. One of his greatest strengths is his contact balance and his ability to break tackles, and now we’re at a point where that can be showcased.”

It’s one thing for a rookie to stand out during OTAs and minicamp. Tight end Adam Shaheen did two years ago, bodying up NFL-caliber defenders to make some impressive plays in those non-padded practices. But he faded when pads came on in training camp and didn’t play a significant role in 2017’s dour offense. 

The Bears believe Montgomery’s ability to break tackles — he forced the most missed tackles among FBS running backs in 2018 with 99, per Pro Football Focus — will translate to the NFL, giving their ground game a dimension it didn’t have in 2018. Jordan Howard avoided 22 tackles on rushing attempts last year, 28th in the NFL and nearly half the total of Kareem Hunt. Hunt appeared in 11 games (five fewer than Howard) before the Kansas City Chiefs released him after video surfaced of him pushing and kicking a woman; Montgomery’s style of play has favorably been compared to Hunt’s.  

As for Davis, Pace said: “I think I feel like he’s a little bit under the radar right now. Mike’s had a great offseason and we’re fortunate to have him. That’s a strong room — we talk about the receivers, we feel the same way about the running back room. And Mike Davis is a real important part of that.”

The Bears feel like Montgomery, Davis and Cohen leading their running back room will allow them to be less predictable and more efficient on offense. Last year, Howard carried the ball two-thirds of the time he was on the field, while he was targeted with a pass on just six percent of his plays. Yet no skill position player (except Mitch Trubisky, of course) was more involved in the Bears’ offense last year — 33 percent of the Bears’ total plays involved Howard. 

All three of the Bears’ top running backs in 2019 will be expected to catch passes out of the backfield as well as running the ball with a blend of efficiency and explosiveness. We’ll begin to find out this week in Bourbonnais if Pace’s overhaul of that corner of his depth chart will produce the results the Bears’ offense needs. 

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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New Bears RB Mike Davis gives mom new house for Mother’s Day

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USA TODAY

New Bears RB Mike Davis gives mom new house for Mother’s Day

Mike Davis set the bar high for Mother’s Day.

Forget the nice card and bag of candy. He went all out to repay his mom for everything she’s done for him.

After signing a two-year, $6 million contract with the Bears this offseason, the fifth-year running back put his $2 million signing bonus to good use.

Davis bought his mom a new house for Mother’s Day.

“I remember when I was younger, we moved every year to a new place,” Davis wrote on Instagram. “Days you didn’t eat but made sure we ate. I love you, enjoy your house.”

Part of the reason he left South Carolina early to declare for the draft in 2015 was to support his mother, and his big pay day with the Bears allowed him to make it happen.

Before coming to Chicago, he had only one season with a salary over $1 million.

His hard work — and his mom’s — paid off.

 

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