Jordan Howard was a fantastic find in the fifth round of the 2016 NFL draft.
In his rookie season, Howard burst onto the scene after an injury to incumbent starter Jeremy Langford and he never relinquished the job. He turned heads with his never-say-die running style, vision, and efficiency, averaging an astounding 5.2 yards per carry to end 2016. He carried (pun intended) his tenacious play into the 2017 season, finishing in the top five in rushing for the second consecutive season.
Howard will almost always fall forward after being brought down, gaining precious extra yardage each and every play. He also has impressive durability, failing to play in only one of 32 possible contests as a Bear, and it was not due to injury (knocks on wood so ferociously that the skin on top of my knuckles has frayed and all that is left is bone).
Overall, Howard brings so many excellent qualities to the table as a bell cow running back.
This piece is not about that.
Because Howard’s play is missing one key component, and that is significant involvement in the passing game. In 2018, elite all-around running backs must make their mark on the ground and through the air, and it’s safe to say Howard has not done that.
He produced semi-respectable rookie year numbers, with nearly 300 yards receiving accumulated through 29 catches but his numbers dipped tremendously in 2017, gaining merely 125 yards totaling an abysmal 5.4 yards per reception, with a couple key drops along the way. One that stands out is a bobble at the one yard line that possibly cost the Bears their week one matchup against defending NFC Champion Atlanta last season.
For those of you wondering if this is only a matter of Howard’s adjustment to the NFL in his first couple seasons, it assuredly is not. In his collegiate career, Howard caught a total of 24 passes in three seasons at UAB and Indiana. This has been a problem plaguing Howard throughout each of his years playing football, and it was almost certainly a limitation that got him drafted in the fifth round in the first place, where Ryan Pace stole him.
This pales in comparison to what Matt Nagy’s offense has previously required, specifically in its most successful form, last season, when it featured the skills of Kareem Hunt. Hunt caught 53 passes, one more than in both of Howard’s seasons combined, and it wasn’t by chance either. He displayed real pass catching ability, combining speed, route running, and hands to do incredible things like a 70 yard touchdown on a wheel route over the middle that broke the Chiefs’ opening night contest with New England wide open.
Now, what can (did?) Howard improve over the offseason to make himself a more complete threat? First of all, here’s what he likely can’t. He’ll never be the uber-athletic deep threat from the running back position that include Hunt, Alvin Kamara, Christian McCaffrey, or fellow Bear Tarik Cohen. That’s just not who he is and it’s not who he will ever be.
What he very well can do and probably has done is an exuberant amount of route running and hands drills to make himself a more crisp, efficient receiver. Onlookers of training camp, including TLS’s own Andrew Link, have noticed sufficient improvement in Bourbonnais from Howard thus far.
While it’s fair to be skeptical of Howard’s progress before he gets onto the game field and proves it, if he actually has made his pass catching better, it would be huge for him and for the team. There should be a sense of urgency with him too, as there were rumors this offseason that the Bears were listening to trade offers (the reports of the Jarvis Landry-Howard trade were not true but others could have had merit) for the young back.
Part of that may have been due to Nagy believing that a ballcarrier with such limitations in the passing game was an improper fit in his offense. A decent chunk of what made him so successful in Kansas City last season was having a back who was always a threat through the air in Hunt.
Howard is nowhere near that threat – yet. If he can bring himself a great deal closer to it, it would take him from a very good running back to an elite one.
Follow Jack Soble on Twitter–Feature Photo Credit: USA Today