Bears Roster Review is a weekly conversation about the state of the 2020 Bears roster from JJ Stankevitz and Cam Ellis. This week: running backs.
CAM ELLIS: JJ, hello. So far in this Roster Review series, we've talked about QBs, tight ends, and the O-Line. All of those conversations have a lot of depth to them! Competitions, new faces, etc. The Bears' running back room, however, feels about as cut-and-dry as any position group on the roster. Maybe there's still time to bring in a Mike Davis (who got the first handoff of 2019, you'll remember!) type, but it does feel like the Bears are just going to run back David Montgomery and Tarik Cohen and hope it goes better.
J.J. STANKEVITZ: Exactly. I'm surprised they haven't added a veteran to slide in with Montgomery and Cohen, especially since the lack of OTAs and minicamps mean their two undrafted free agents - Napoleon Maxwell and Artavis Pierce - will be behind the curve when training camp starts. So we're looking at Montgomery-Cohen-Ryan Nall? It reads like the Bears don't think their running backs are the issue with their running game, which...feels accurate, right?
ELLIS: Yeah, I think that's ultimately where the conversation on running backs goes pretty quickly with the Bears. Usage is going to be the most fascinating aspect of how Nagy and Co. deploy Montgomery/Cohen this season, IMO. I don't see as many A-gap runs for Cohen, and like Bill Lazor told us last week, getting David Montgomery involved in the passing game has got to be a priority.
STANKEVITZ: So let's start with Cohen, because I see his issues last year being mostly on the coaching staff. Something Cohen said when talking to us earlier this month is that he felt like every time he motioned into the slot, he had a DB over him. When he was in the backfield, he kept meeting linebackers. The Bears' offense was predictable and disjointed last year, and it significantly hurt what Cohen could do.
Cohen is so, so good at taking advantage of bad matchups for the defense. But teams were able to cover him up pretty easily because the Bears' offense lacked anything that kept defenses on their toes. Not having a productive tight end - at all - probably hurt, too, but it was disappointing how few favorable matchups Cohen found in 2019. That's not his fault.
ELLIS: No, it's not. Cohen's going to tear up defenses consistently when he can play comfortably within that 'gadget' role that Nagy loves to put him in, but not when other teams' defensive game plan revolves around him because they can afford to. What's interesting to me is that it's a contract year, which brings up how the Bears/any NFL team would pay Cohen. It'd behoove him to distance himself from the typical running back role – which isn't entirely in his control, obviously, but is something that may also be in the Bears' best interest on the field.
STANKEVITZ: Yeah. Cohen is decidedly not a Running Back, even if that's technically his position title. He does so much as a receiver that he should, theoretically, be paid more like a slot guy rather than a running back (which means he'll make a lot more money).
But one other thought here, since I mentioned the tight ends earlier. I think even mild production from Jimmy Graham and/or Cole Kmet will significantly help Cohen get more of those favorable matchups. If the Bears couldn't create mismatches with their tight ends last year, they certainly weren't going to create them with Cohen. It's like what happened in the Wild Card game against the Eagles. No Trey Burton meant Cohen was the focus of Philly's defense, and it worked awfully well.
ELLIS: They'd better hope it helps, because last season's numbers were abysmal. Per Sharp Football Analysis, the Bears were: 31st in Explosive Rushing Offense, 29th in Rushing Efficiency Offense, and 27th in Running Back Pass Efficiency Offense. There are plenty more I could fire off, but there's no need to get *that* dark on a Monday afternoon. Everyone was rightfully frustrated with the ground game last season, and it's important.
That being said, I'd argue that within the vacuum of Matt Nagy's offense, getting production out of the RB passing game is maybe more important? Is that dumb? I've sort of given up on the idea that Matt Nagy's ever going to run the ball like The Olds on Twitter want him to.
STANKEVITZ: I would disagree, and I'm a Millennial who doesn't value running backs much! Matt Nagy needs to figure out a way to trust his run game and use it effectively to avoid the kind of predictability that defined last year's offense.
Even if it's building passing plays off running plays, he has to run the ball more. I'm not saying the Bears need to over-commit to the run but it has to be part of their offense. And here's the thing: They have a good running back on their roster in David Montgomery who can do just that!
Montgomery isn't explosive but he's such a tough, physical, agile runner who's great at grinding out extra yards. He's the kind of guy who could have a really steady, solid year with 300-ish carries. He just needs to get them.
ELLIS: Yeah, I was SOLD on Montgomery during last year's camp almost immediately. And I still think he's going to be a good piece for them. It looked like there was some hesitant/indecisive running at times last season, but it's clear as day that when he gets into a rhythm, he's a pro player. I remember watching him in the Chargers game last season (27-135-1TD) and wondering what'd be so wrong with the Bears doing that more often. And yeah, it's too small of a sample size to take super seriously, but Montgomery's two best games of 2019 were also his highest volume games in terms of rushes. He got 20+ carries in 4 games last year, and hit over 80 yards in 3 of them. That's not nothing.
STANKEVITZ: It's not! He's the kind of guy who can wear down a defense over the course of a game because he's so physical. Did you also know Montgomery averaged a full yard per carry more from the shotgun (4.2) than under center (3.2)? He had just as many TDs from shotgun as he did from under center (3), too. So it's not necessarily as simple as going to the I-formation and handing Montgomery the ball.
ELLIS: I did not know that!
STANKEVITZ: The more you know!
ELLIS: So I think the last real question here is: is there a vet coming into the room between now and 2025, when football resumes? There are some names out that there would have crushed in Madden 14, and I'd argue that the Bears don't really have an answer if Montgomery goes down. Can we talk ourselves into a former Pro Bowler?!
STANKEVITZ: Let me just Google if Carlos Hyde has signed anywhere yet. *checks* Ah! He signed with the Seahawks. How about Devonta Freeman? *checks* He's still out there!
ELLIS: Marshawn Lynch is technically listed!
But to answer your question, the Bears are probably going to sign a veteran running back at some point in 2020, if there is football (which is a big if). Freeman is the biggest name out there; someone like Theo Riddick could make a bit of sense, too.
Asking Montgomery to take 250-300 carries is a lot; I have no doubt he can do it, but running backs get banged up all the time. And Cohen isn't a true backup running back, so that would lead us to Nall or one of the other UDFAs. That's not the kind of guy the Bears need for Nagy to trust the running game.
ELLIS: Yeah, I agree there too. Not exactly the most riveting roster review! Bonus question: what is the *lowest* rush total the Bears will tally in 2020? Does Nagy have it in him to stay under 10? Would he be let in the building on Monday? I can almost see the tweets now.
STANKEVITZ: Hoo boy. If we have another single digit game it's gonna be bad! It'd be a failure of a ton of folks: The offensive line/tight ends, Nagy, Juan Castillo, Bill Lazor, Clancy Barone...yeesh. How quickly we forget the days where John Fox had Mitch Trubisky throw seven times...and beat a playoff team in the 2017 Carolina Panthers!
ELLIS: Maybe he knew all along!