One of them ventured to Jacksonville. One of them signed with the Saints. One of them is a receiver now. Most notably, one of them found himself traded to Philadelphia. And only one of them remains.
Listed above are the fates that met each member of the Bears’ 2018 regular season backfield depth chart: Benny Cunningham, Michael Burton, Taquan Mizzell, Jordan Howard, and Tarik Cohen, respectively. This is the position group that experienced more roster turnover than any of the others, thanks to a concerted effort from Ryan Pace to acquire players that fit Matt Nagy’s vision more than the jettisoned Howard.
If my evaluations of the new faces and Nagy’s scheme are correct, Pace’s reforms are going to pay off right away, in a big way. Here is a complete preview of the Bears’ running back group.
Depth Chart (2018 stats, * = college stats)
1. Tarik Cohen: 99 carries, 444 yards (4.5 YPC), 3 touchdowns, 71 receptions, 725 yards (10.2 YPR), 5 touchdowns
2. David Montgomery*: 257 carries, 1216 yards (4.7 YPC), 13 touchdowns, 22 receptions, 157 yards (7.1 YPR)
3. Mike Davis: 112 carries, 514 yards (4.6 YPC), 4 touchdowns, 34 receptions, 214 yards (6.3 YPR), 1 touchdown
4. Kerrith Whyte: 134 carries, 866 yards (6.5 YPC), 8 touchdowns, 10 receptions, 160 yards (16.0 YPR), 2 touchdowns
5. Ryan Nall: Did not play in 2018
Intrinsically, I debated where to put Cohen here. I considered placing him behind Montgomery, maybe even behind Davis, or in a completely separate article with only himself and Cordarrelle Patterson. That last one fell through because it seemed like too much work. He’s at the top because there is only one other player, Allen Robinson, who you could make the case is the non-QB most important to the Bears’ offense.
In the last two years, when the Bears are scoring a great deal of points, Cohen’s heightened production is a big reason why. He does everything, but his specialty is the wheel route – towards the end of the season, teams were noticeably playing less man coverage because they were terrified of a linebacker finding himself matched up against Cohen one-on-one and being subsequently roasted.
While Cohen sits atop the depth chart, Montgomery will receive the majority of the carries for the 2019 Bears. The first thing you should know about the rookie third-rounder out of Iowa State is that his tape is beyond awesome. He refuses to go down, clearly sets up his cuts and quickly anticipates holes opening up. Look a bit closer and slow it down on the passing plays and you’ll see how naturally he shifts from catch to run, which is a trait that’s impossible to teach. You either have it or you don’t. The coaching staff is publicly thrilled with how he’s looked in offseason workouts since being drafted and he should make an instant impact.
Davis’s 2018 tape with Seattle isn’t nearly as flashy, but it’s obvious why he’s on the team. Like Montgomery, he’s a perfect fit for the inside zone/power shotgun blocking schemes that Matt Nagy prefers. He’s not huge, but he’s well-built and has much more short-area speed than you could ascertain from looking at him. Montgomery’s selection makes Davis the backup but in no way excludes him from Pace’s vision for the 2019 offense.
Whyte’s main and perhaps only positive attribute (other than being if Kevin White was a Game of Thrones character) is speed, but he fortunately has a great deal of it. He spent the last couple years backing up Devin Singletary, now a Bill, but his production in college is eye-opening. More on him shortly. Nall must convert to fullback, convince the Bears that he is good at fullback, and the Bears to decide that they need a fullback if he wants to make the roster, which he probably won’t.
It is very much worth noting that while he will be listed as a receiver, the aforementioned Patterson is more than capable of filling in for a game as the primary ballcarrier if Montgomery, Davis, or both go down.
Key Training Camp Battle: Kerrith Whyte vs. getting cut
Whyte is in an odd spot. In an ordinary year, a running back who was just drafted with great speed and who can return kicks would be a near-lock to make the roster. However, the Bears have both their punt and kick returner spots locked down and with Patterson on board emergency depth at the position.
It’s conceivable – unless Whyte impresses in camp and preseason – that Chicago keeps an extra receiver and only three running backs, as opposed to the traditional six and four and tries to sneak Whyte onto the practice squad. That last bit, however, could be a dangerous proposition.
Keys to Success
1. Keep Montgomery fresh
Smart teams are careful about how much they use their running backs, especially those who plan on playing football in Chicago in late January. Out of the top thirteen rushing attempt leaders in football last season, only one was part of a team that won a playoff game. And he (Todd Gurley) was unable to participate as much as he’d like in those later playoff games, because for all we know he doesn’t have knees anymore.
Fortunately, the Bears are a smart team, which is why they signed Davis even though they knew they’d be drafting a running back. Montgomery shouldn’t receive more than 200, maybe even 180 carries, they expect Davis to be almost as productive in his stead.
2. Get the ball to Cohen in space
While Cohen’s usage rate was about where it should be last year, it didn’t feel like Nagy was creative enough in how he featured his most dynamic offensive weapon. Cohen was utilized as a decoy on successful snaps, because he draws attention every time he steps on the field, but where was the reverse of that concept?
This year, I’d like to see Nagy move guys around and run some misdirection in order to scheme his top guy into the open field more often. Maybe fake a jet sweep with Patterson and run a screen the other way, or run four verticals from an empty set and sneak Cohen behind them on a drag. Nagy is better at this than I am, but if he fails to further take advantage of Cohen’s skillset, he’d be leaving points on the field.
3. Five threats on every snap
Josh Lucas confirmed at the Bears’ 100th year celebration convention what many Bears fans had long suspected: Howard was traded at least in part because the Bears’ coaching and personnel staff believed that he made them predictable. With Howard on the field, defenses didn’t respect him as anything more than a rare check down option who could do nothing after the catch.
That is no longer the case, which is the largest reason why the renovated backfield is a very good thing. Montgomery, Davis, and obviously Cohen are all capable of making a play in the receiving game, which should open entirely new possibilities for the 2019 offense.