Pro Football Weekly Chicago Bears beat writer Bob LeGere is going position by position and breaking down where the Bears stand entering an offseason in which they're armed with more than $40 million in cap space and seven draft picks, including No. 8 overall. Today on LeGere's positional offseason analysis series: running backs.
With Jordan Howard as the bell cow and Tarik Cohen as the exciting, multi-dimensional complement, the Bears’ ground game is a team strength.
But they may need to replace underappreciated veteran Benny Cunningham, a jack-of-all-trades, who could leave as a free agent.
Howard has been a productive workhorse with 2,435 yards on 528 carries and a 4.6-yard average in his first two seasons. He’s a punishing runner but is not a good receiver. Cohen is excellent in that regard, and the 5-foot-6 jitterbug was second on the team with 53 receptions as a rookie, although his 6.7-yard average per catch was unimpressive.
Cohen also rushed for 370 yards, averaging 4.3 yards per carry, while averaging 9.4 yards on 29 punt returns and taking over the kickoff-return chores as well, averaging 22.4 yards on 26 attempts.
Howard’s production dipped a bit from his exceptional rookie season when he rolled up 1,313 yards and averaged 5.2 yards per attempt. But considering that the Bears’ anemic passing attack (No. 32 in yards) in 2017 often allowed opponents to defend the run with eight men in the box, Howard did well to rush for 1,122 yards and a 4.1-yard average, along with nine touchdowns.
Including returns, runs and receptions, the 181-pound Cohen received just over 12 touches per game, and he appears capable of handling a slightly heavier workload but is not built to be a featured back. Still, he was the closest thing the Bears had to a big-play threat last year.
Cunningham’s versatility is his best asset, and he averaged 12.0 yards on 20 catches last season. He has been an excellent kickoff returner in the past. The Bears preferred Cohen in that role, but if he re-signs, Cunningham could step in to allow the youngster to play a bigger role in the offense.
If the Bears address running back in the offseason, they will almost certainly look for a low-cost role player or someone who could provide insurance in the event of an injury to Howard.
Jerick McKinnon is an accomplished pass catcher with 94 receptions for the Vikings the past two years, but he is not a workhorse. Alfred Morris was Washington's main man from 2012-15 before backing up Ezekiel Elliott the past two seasons in Dallas, and he has an impressive 4.4-yard career average per carry but doesn’t contribute much as a receiver. Eddie Lacy can be an impressive runner and receiver at 235 pounds, but he doesn’t do either very well when he weighs around 255, which he sometimes has in recent years.
This year’s draft is deep in running backs, but it would be a surprise if the Bears address that position before Day Three.
Alabama’s 6-foot-1 ½-inch, 237-pound Bo Scarbrough could be available then because he lacks speed and has some durability concerns. But he could give the Bears another powerful, physical inside runner and a potential short-yardage option, and he has good hands.
Arizona State’s 6-foot-2, 222-pound Kalen Ballage has some traits similar to Scarbrough’s. He lacks the speed to get the corner but is a strong inside runner who gets yardage after contact, and he adds a pass-catching threat.