Bears Offseason Outlook: Running Back

Jordan Howard's future is unclear, and the Bears could have eyes on Kareem Hunt.

Chris Emma
January 31, 2019 - 11:45 am
Categories: 

Editor's note: This is the second in a series of positional breakdowns as the Bears enter the offseason. Click here for all of them as we move along.

(670 The Score) How will the Bears get their running game going? It was a question that Bears coach Matt Nagy heard plenty during his first season in Chicago.

After overseeing a Chiefs offense in 2017 that featured the NFL's leading rusher in running back Kareem Hunt, Nagy struggled with the Bears in 2018 to establish feature back Jordan Howard. And in a developing offense, Nagy didn't find the ideal rhythm he hoped to between Howard and Tarik Cohen.

So as the Bears begin their offseason and look ahead to 2019, the question still stands: How will they get their running game going?

Who's back: Jordan Howard, 24; Tarik Cohen, 23; Taquan Mizzell, 25; Ryan Nall, 23

Bears general manager Ryan Pace faces a fascinating decision this offseason at running back position, with Howard set to enter the final season of his rookie contract. How do the Bears value a steady player at a position with such a short shelf life? Adding to that, how do the Bears value Howard's fit in Nagy's offense?

Howard's numbers slipped in 2018, when he had 250 carries for 935 yards (3.7 yards per carry). It was the first time in his three-year career that he didn't reach the 1,000-yard milestone. Howard caught 20 passes out of the backfield, which paled in comparison to Cohen's 71 receptions.

Given that Pace has had success drafting running backs -- Howard was a fifth-round pick in 2016, Cohen a fourth-round pick in 2017 -- the Bears could be inclined to trade Howard this offseason and regain some draft capital. If they do, they would then be on the search for a complement to Cohen -- either on the open market or in the middle draft rounds once again.

Free agents: Benny Cunningham, 28

The Bears have valued the veteran presence of Cunningham in the last two seasons, and he could return on a new contract this offseason. 

Cunningham has only rushed 20 times for 49 yards during his time in Chicago, but he has been a key contributor on special teams and a strong presence in the locker room. Cunningham also returned eight kicks in 2018.

2018 review

The looming question at running back first surfaced a year ago at this time, with the newcomer Nagy asked about how he would implement Howard in his offense.

Answers were never clear as the regular season progressed. Howard only broke the 100-yard mark twice, including rushing 21 times for 109 yards in the regular-season finale at Minnesota. He also rushed for 35, 25, 21 and 13 yards, respectively, during games in 2018.

Nagy maintained all along he would be cautious with the 5-foot-6 Cohen in an effort to not overwork him. Only once did Cohen receive double-digit carries, though he remained a constant target in the passing game. 

The threat of Cohen was well-established in the offense -- save for only four touches in the wild-card round loss to the Eagles -- but the complementary backfield between Howard and Cohen never gained a consistent identity.

"Everyone talks about the run game," Nagy said after the season. "It wasn't as good as it should be. The offense can be better, without a doubt, no doubt. I'm not there yet, but I'm excited to get with the coaches here in the next couple of weeks and start really evaluating these guys and understanding the 'why' part.

"When you're going game-by-game, week-by-week, you think you know and you're watching it, but then you're on to that next opponent so quick that the scheme eval part hasn't occurred. When we start diving into the scheme eval and we really, truly start evaluating the 'why' part, then that's where we're going to have more answers with the whole offense."

2019 outlook

Could Nagy and the Bears find their Kareem Hunt in Hunt himself? The football fit is natural, though the situation is complicated.

Hunt was released by the Chiefs in late November and placed on the commissioner's exempt list after a video surfaced from a February incident in which he shoved and kicked a woman in a Cleveland hotel. He lied to the Chiefs about the incident, which ultimately played a key part in his release.

Hunt is available to be signed, though he's expected to first face a suspension -- expected to be around six games -- before he can suit up. At a season-ending news conference, Pace and Nagy didn't close the door on the possibility of giving Hunt a second chance, a decision that's expected to go all the way to chairman George McCaskey and board members.

McCaskey hasn't yet seen the video of Hunt's incident but said he would watch if the Bears decided to pursue him.

"We're not there yet," McCaskey said during an interview on 670 The Score last week.

Hunt was a Pro Bowl selection in 2017 and rushed for a league-best 1,327 yards (4.9 yards per carry) while catching 53 passes in Nagy's offense. He would be a more natural fit for the Bears' system than Howard and would work well as a Cohen complement.

But the question comes down to whether the Bears would want to back Hunt. 

"I was raised that way to give guys second chances, not third chances," Nagy said when asked of Hunt's situation. "Now, I’ve learned that from (Chiefs coach Andy Reid), he’s done that several times with some people. But I will say that every situation is different."

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.​