This is the first of many blogs in a series where I’ll be examining the Bears current roster and possible options of additions via free agency and the draft along with how it all fits with the Bears systems and cap situation. I start off with the running back position as it’s probably the single most intriguing position going into the off-season and one of their biggest needs.
When the subject of offense comes up about the Bears it generally revolves around the relationship between Head Coach Matt Nagy and Quarterback Mitch Trubisky and their progression together as play caller and signal caller. However, the second thing that’s discussed is how will the Bears running game evolve in year two. Looking back at 2018 the running game was a source of great consternation among fans and local media that covered them.
The yards per carry and explosive plays weren’t there overall particularly for Jordan Howard. There is a lot of speculation on whether or not he’s a fit in what Nagy is looking for in a Running Back. This has led to a lot of speculation that the Bears will be actively seeking his replacement and may even be shopping him around possibly in a package for draft pick compensation.
I’ll get into Howard in greater detail later. As a matter of fact, I intend to get into the entire position group in greater detail. Grading out who they currently have under their control, their options in the veteran free agent market, options in the draft and how they factor in the Bears scheme, cap situation and possibly as assets in other ways to help build a deeper, more talented roster moving forward.
Players currently under contract:
Jordan Howard: For those who think Howard is so out of favor with Nagy that the Bears will trade him away for a bag of balls or even straight out release him stop. For one, Howard is cheap. Barely over a million guaranteed is what he’ll make this coming season. If you want to make a case for them getting cap space relief forget that to. His dead cap hit is just 318,108. No way they cut a player to save barely over 300,000 who is a leader and beloved teammate and a productive one. That’s incredible value for a player with his production.
It’s not like the Bears didn’t use him either. There was a false narrative about his lack of useage because he wasn’t a fit but he actually had 250 carries 6th most in the NFL. They also targeted Howard with 27 passes of which he caught 20 of them. That’s a respectable 74.1% catch rate with a 3.7% drop rate with the 1 drop he had. So that shoots holes in the stone hands analysis of his catching ability. He also scored 9 touchdowns in 2018 which is a valuable skill set when you can give your team 6 points.
As for trading him for anything short of a day 2 pick forget that too. Many people will point to his being a 5th round pick but he has far surpassed his original draft value. He’s done that exceeding his expected rate of production for his draft slot, as well as, his ridiculously low rate of pay which makes him an incredibly valuable player. If he does get moved it will be for no less than a 3rd. Expect Howard to be a Bear for 2019 or being flipped for an equally valuable pro asset at a need spot. Beyond that it’s questionable at best if he returns when his contract expires.
Tarik Cohen: A lot of people see Cohen as the 2nd half of the Bears running tandem but he is so much more. Cohen is Nagy’s offensive Swiss army knife. Number one, he’s the Bears 2018 leading receiver with 71 and targets 89 for a fantastic 79.8% catch rate for 725 yards with only 2 drops for a ridiculously low 2.2% drop rate. Not only is he productive and explosive he’s incredibly reliable.
He also got 99 carries for 441 yards in 2018 at a respectable 4.2 yard per carry average. He also had the second highest big run rate in the NFL at 9.1% and 9 total. Also, very much like Howard, he’s got a nose for the end zone with 8 total touchdowns. He’s also among the best in the league as a decoy and oh yeah, he can throw the ball a little too adding a touchdown with his arm on the oompa loompa play to Trey Burton versus the Giants. If that isn’t enough do it all versatility for you there is the fact he was the NFC pro bowl representative as punt returner.
Benny Cunningham: Cunningham is more special teamer than running back, but he is after all listed as a running back on the roster and thus falls in this category. With 20 carries and 2 targets in the passing game Cunningham’s roster retention will be solely based on special teams. Given he has almost no value as a returner and is only viable in the coverage phase of the punt and kickoff phase you would have to think this was his last hurrah with the team. He’s got a good shot at being invited to camp to fight for a spot and may come back sometime in the future if an injury happens and he is available but I do not see him being offered a contract at the end of camp. There is a small chance he gets picked up by another team in need of a veteran special teamer.
Taquan Mizzell: Mizzell is a player that has made the roster in some form and fashion with two separate coaching regimes. So you know Pace likes him and Nagy was intrigued enough to keep him on and even used him in key spots during the season. While I feel he has a slim Chance of making the roster who knows how the Bears feel about him.
He does have some skills out of the backfield and even lined up outside and in the slot as a receiver. A skill very coveted in the league and in Nagy’s philosophy of how to use his backs. He did get a chance as a returner but did not take advantage of that situation. Think he’ll be brought back to fight for a roster spot but has zero guarantees. He would have to make big strides this off-season to stick around.
Michael Burton: It’s pretty evident that Fullback is a position the Bears like to use only matchup based versus certain defenses when they want to go power run over a smaller defense upfront. Burton suited up for just 8 games and started only one. So this is a toss up on whether Burton sticks.
I think Nagy would prefer carrying a Fullback but you never know if they choose to go exclusively with an H-Back. If the Bears go Fullback Burton would be most certainly the guy unless he gets an offer elsewhere or unless another younger player emerges out of camp as a college free agent. Either way, expect Burton to be back in camp with the Bears competing for a roster spot.
Ryan Nall: Nall was a guy who had a draftable grade by most media scouts and draftniks coming out of the 2018 draft. Some teams even reportedly made inquiries on whether he’d be willing to make a position switch as a flex Tight End. So, his pass catching skill set and knowledge of how a modern passing offense works as a blocker and route runner is respected in the league. A skill set respected by the Bears apparently as they were reportedly one of those teams. Lo and behold he was signed as a college free agent by the Bears and ultimately put on their practice squad.
Nall was recently signed to a reserves/futures contract and will return to the team with an opportunity to win a spot on the roster or be back on the practice squad for further development. Nall has intriguing traits and size and looks like the exact type Nagy would love on his roster for his versatility. I think he has a chance to ultimately take over Howard’s role as the big back but offer more explosion and better pass catching ability for 2020 once Howard likely leaves as a free agent. I also feel he can take over Cunningham’s spot if he shows he’s ready to be a core special teamer.
Free Agent Possibilities:
Kareem Hunt: What more needs to be said here. When on the field he is one of the best backs in football. He’s an explosive slasher with a high degree of athleticism as you often see him hurtling over would be tacklers. He also runs with physicality and purpose with a nose for the goal line.
Hunt is someone who you can feel good about handing the ball to to squeeze out a tough yard for a drive extending 1st down, or someone you can give a simple hand off deep in your own territory to and he can take it to the house. He’s also a back with a high IQ who can pickup blitzers and run routes like a Wide Receiver with hands to match. A runner who you can use in any situation at any time. Perhaps the biggest reason to sign him is he’s a proven perfect fit in this very offense as he proved under Nagy in Kansas City.
He’s also going to come cheap. With his off-field issues and likely suspension he should get no more than league minimum pro rated for games played and filled with inventive clauses. There is also the PR situation to deal with. Other than the possible moral conflict and negative PR there are no big risks here both on the field/locker room nor financially. The other con would be length of service as he will be suspended at minimum 6 games to start the season.
Spencer Ware: If the Bears don’t get Hunt, Ware is a prime candidate to join the Bears. He had a nice start with Kansas City his first two seasons both with Nagy on the offensive staff. 15′ and 16′ were very productive seasons for Ware. Particularly 2016 where he ran for 921 yards on 214 carries for 4.3 YPC. He added 5 Touchdowns. 3 rushing, 2 through the air. Ware also had 33 catches for 447 yards for a 13.5 avg. The season before he ran for 6 touchdowns and added 440 yards on just 72 carries for a 5.6 YPC average. Like Hunt, he is a proven performer in Nagy’s system.
Tevin Coleman: Coleman is another perfect fit. Explosive player who is a factor in the passing game as well as the run. He had the 7th most big runs in the NFL with 13. Coleman ran for 800 yards for 4.8 YPC. He also contributed 33 catches for nearly 300 yards and scoring a total 9 Touchdowns. He’s still very young and will be 26 this season so he’s also a possibility as a core player for 3+ seasons. Depending on the cost This looks like a nice match.
Le’Veon Bell: Bell would be another great fit in this offense. He has the flexibility to do a multitude of things within the offense. He can block, catch and of course run the ball. When on his game he is an All Pro caliber talent at the running back position. Some would say he isn’t a fit for Nagy as he lacks elite explosion but I disagree. If He doesn’t fit in your system you have a bad system. Nagy would love having a stud like Bell at his disposal. The match is only a bad one because of the massive dent he would make on the Bears cap space. Doubt this is even entertained but you can’t discount it out of hand when a young high level talent like Bell becomes available.
Bargain Bin Free Agent:
Charcandrick West: West makes sense as he has experience in Nagy’s system and had some success in it. Especially as a pass catcher. West is a smaller back (5’10” 205 lbs) who profiles as a gimmick 3rd down back. Bears already have a player like that in Cohen but he could offer some reliable depth who can contribute in the return game on special teams.
Justice Hill: Hill is an exciting runner with a lot off wiggle in his hips. Can stop on a dime and accelerate like he never broke stride. Hill falls in striking range for the Bears after having a statistically down year from his past two seasons. He wasn’t asked to catch the ball a lot so he’ll have to show he can contribute on 3rd down. His blocking is already an issue. Hill will have to show he can hold his own physically as he is a bit undersized at 5’10” 185 pounds. Nothing a good NFL weight program can’t fix however.
Bryce Love: This time last year Love was being talked about as a possible top 20 pick. For some inexplicable reason he decide to return Stanford. After an off-season he now is projected to go into the end of day 3 at the earliest. With questions about his size and being able to remain healthy in the NFL people were willing to look past last year, this year they don’t seem to be so willing. One thing he doesn’t have questions about is his speed. When healthy the kid can jet. He seems to have decent hands and should be a factor in the passing game aswell.
Devin Singletary: Singletary is another undersized back at 5’9″ 200 pounds but plays bigger. Shows durability despite his size and aggressive running style. He’s not particularly fast but he is elusive and can cut on a dime. He’s also a very good receiver out of the backfield. He can also block which makes him an every down back and someone who can carry the load once Howard inevitably leaves as a free agent next off-season.
Darrell Henderson: Henderson is a big play back who runs with surprising physicality. However, it’s his explosive ability that stands out. Had 43 runs of 15 yards or better and 11 of over 50 this past season alone. Henderson also shows the ability to be a threat out of the backfield. His blocking could use some improvement but he shows plenty of willingness to engage and should be very teachable.
LJ Scott: Scott is a little different back than those I’ve put on this list. He’s a big physical back who is more of a Howard type of back. Scott is someone who may be able to replace Howard if he is not retained after this season. Scott does excel as a receiver and in pass pro. His statistics at Michigan State have been underwhelming which is what drops him but he should be a better pro than a collegiate player who can be a feature back at the next level.
Dexter Williams: Williams is a good sized back at 5’11” 215 pounds and probably has the best combination of speed and power of the other names on this list. This makes him a 3 down back at the next level. He runs with power and elusiveness as his Nick name “Juice” would indicate. Shows the ability to be a factor out off the backfield as a pass catching threat and is more than willing to take on blitzing linebackers in pass pro. He comes with some character concern with off field troubles in his time at school but if his character checks out Williams could be a value pick in this draft.