Bears Seeking Better Backfield Fit In Draft

After interest in Kareem Hunt, the Bears have met running back prospects.

Chris Emma
February 28, 2019 - 6:33 pm
Kentucky running back Benny Snell

Jamie Rhodes/USA Today Sports

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (670 The Score) -- Offense in the modern NFL has changed during the course of this decade, and so has the position of running back.

Members of the backfield now are asked to to do much more than just carry the football nearly 20 times a game. They must also catch passes out of the backfield, block in pass protection and line up wide as a receiver. Running backs need te be the complete package these days.

That's why the Bears recently explored the possibility of signing Kareem Hunt, who's facing a suspension, and could potentially part ways with Jordan Howard this offseason. And it's what they're now looking for in the NFL Draft. 

"When you're dealing with running backs for us in this offense, you want to be able to have a guy that has really good vision that can make guys miss," Bears coach Matt Nagy said at the NFL Combine. "At the same time, there's that balance of being a hybrid, being able to make things happen in the pass game, too, but yet to where you're not one-dimensional. And that's not easy."

Howard's future is uncertain given that he's entering the final season of his rookie contract and was relatively disappointing in Nagy's offense in 2018. Howard rushed for a career-low 935 yards (3.7 yards per carry) and was targeted only 26 times out of the backfield. The Bears often struggled to establish him as a feature back and gave him a minimal role as a pass-catching target. 

Then there's Tarik Cohen, whose explosiveness was ideal for Nagy's offense. Cohen was targeted 91 times, working out of the backfield and out wide. What prevents him from filling a full-time role is his 5-foot-6, 181-pound frame that has Nagy and the Bears keep caution in mind.

While general manager Ryan Pace downplayed the Bears' interest in Hunt as not being serious, simply exploring that possibility was a signal that the Bears are seeking a replacement for Howard.

The Bears own five picks the draft this April -- one in the third, fourth and fifth rounds plus two in the seventh. Bears brass has already met with a number of running backs at the combine this week, seeking players who fit their mold best.

"The NFL, they look for mismatches," Ohio State running back Mike Weber said. "Getting running backs the ball out of the backfield against linebackers, D-ends, safeties. If you're able to do that stuff, you can play for a lot of teams."

Weber is one of many options who could make sense for the Bears in the middle rounds. He was a productive back who rushed for 954 yards and five touchdowns with the Buckeyes in 2018. He was also utilized as a target, catching 21 passes. He checks many of the boxes that a team like the Bears could be seeking. 

The same could be said for Kentucky product Benny Snell, who rushed for 3,873 yards (5.3 yards per carry) and 48 touchdowns in three seasons. The 5-foot-10, 224-pound Snell met with the Bears this week and could be a fit for their offense.

"I bring a lot of power to the game, a lot of smart decisions," Snell said. "When you need me at critical times, I make things happen. I usually make something out of nothing. I just see myself as a productive player, a real passionate player.

"You can't measure a person's heart. When they put the three stars on me when I first came out of high school, I eventually was freshman All-American my first year, and a bunch of five-stars weren't getting any playing time. There's things behind football that you can't measure."

Chicago's brass also met formally with Penn State running back Miles Sanders on Tuesday. Sanders rushed for 1,274 yards and nine touchdowns last season.

If the Bears would prefer another Cohen, there are options available in this draft as well. Electrifying Memphis running back Darrell Henderson rushed 214 times for 1,909 yards (8.9 yards per carry) and 22 touchdowns last season while adding 19 receptions for 295 yards and three touchdowns. 

Florida Atlantic running back Devin Singletary, who rushed for 1,348 yards and 22 touchdowns in 2018, checked in at the NFL Combine at just over 5-foot-7 and 203 pounds. He has admired how the 5-foot-6 Cohen has excelled in the NFL.

"Size doesn't matter," Singletary said. "If you can ball, you can ball."

Should the Bears choose to take a chance at running back, Stanford standout Bryce Love could be an option. Love suffered a torn ACL in November and has embarked on a recovery that should have him practicing in August. 

Love could have run the fastest 40 time of any running back at the NFL Combine if he was healthy. He may have been a first- or second-round pick. Instead, he's trying to remind teams this week of the success for running backs like Todd Gurley who came off a torn ACL in college.

There's recent precedent for the Bears taking a chance on a player coming off an injury. In the 2017 draft, they selected safety Eddie Jackson, who was coming off a broken leg and fell to the fourth round. Jackson became an All-Pro safety in 2018, his second season in the league.

"Injuries are a part of the game," Love said. "The big thing is ACLs aren't what they used to be. You can point to the success of a lot of different backs in the NFL right now that have had knee surgery and gone through those things."

What will the Bears do at running back? There are plenty of options in play, but what seems evident is that they're comfortable packaging Howard for a draft pick and finding a better fit.

That's because this draft projects to have plenty of running backs in the middle rounds suited for the Bears, Nagy and a modern NFL offense.

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