Gabriel: How Will Bears' Backfield Workload Unfold?

The Bears have added speed and explosiveness, as Matt Nagy hoped.

Greg Gabriel
May 23, 2019 - 4:32 pm
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(670 The Score) The Bears' leading rusher of the past three seasons, running back Jordan Howard was traded from Chicago to Philadelphia in March. His exit has left the position looking a lot different than a year ago, and it figures to make for an interesting positional battle as OTAs have opened and the start of training camp approaches in July.

With Howard gone, the Bears added two new running backs: Mike Davis on a two-year deal in free agency and David Montgomery in the third round of the NFL Draft. 

Davis, 26, entered the NFL in 2015 and spent his first two seasons in San Francisco and the past two in Seattle. He has never been a lead back in the NFL, but the Bears signed him because he's a better fit for coach Matt Nagy's offense than Howard was. 

Davis doesn’t have breakaway speed, but he's a quick-footed, elusive runner who can be productive both inside and outside the tackles. He's also a good receiver and has shown that he can consistently get positive yardage after the catch. Upon his signing, he projected to be the Bears' starter entering the 2019 season.

That being said, it was no secret that drafting a running back was a high priority for the Bears, who showcased their commitment to Montgomery by moving up to select him. 

Montgomery compares in some ways to Kareem Hunt, the running back who while in Kansas City best epitomized how the position should be played in Nagy's offense. The two have similar size (Montgomery is 5-foot-10, 222 pounds while Davis checks in at 5-foot-9, 217 pounds) and athletic traits, and their running styles are fairly similar. That alone makes Montgomery likely to see plenty of action this fall.

My feeling is the Bears won't have a bell-cow running back but rather rely heavily on both Davis and Montgomery. Their abilities are well-rounded enough that defenses won't be able to key in on the Bears' tendencies just because one or the other is in the backfield. That will allow the Bears to keep their playbook wide open and have a fresh back in anytime they want.

What will be interesting will how the Bears utilize Tarik Cohen and the newly signed Cordarelle Patterson. Cohen is at his best when used as a spot player. The 5-foot-6, 181-pound Cohen doesn’t have the size or frame to be a workhorse in the offense but is productive and dangerous when getting 12-15 touches per game. Those touches will come as a runner, a receiver and a returner. I can see Nagy using formations in which Cohen is either used as a second running back or as a slot receiver. In that role, he can create a mismatch and set up big-play potential.

The same can be said for Patterson, who won a Super Bowl with the Patriots last season. New England used used Patterson quite often as a running back as well as a receiver. The Bears envision him bringing big-play capability as well, and they could like him and Cohen up together in the backfield to really create pressure on opposing defenses.

The Bears likely will keep four running backs on the roster, but Patterson's versatility and use in other areas could increase that number to five. So who else would be in consideration for that final spot?

Ryan Nall became a fan favorite in training camp last year because of his aggressive and competitive style. He's an instinctive runner who has shown the toughness required to play on special teams. His weakness is that he's not quick or explosive, which are traits that Nagy prefers. Nall is similar to Howard as a runner but may be a better receiver.

Nall's main competition would come from Kerrith Whyte Jr., whom the Bears selected in the seventh round in April. Whyte ran the 40 in 4.38 and is an excellent kick returner. He's not big, but he has the strength and power to gain yardage after contact to go along with his big-play ability that he displayed at Florida Atlantic. Once he's in space, he's gone with his speed.

My guess is the Bears staff will favor Whyte’s big-play potential over Nall’s tough inside demeanor. That said, how they perform in practice and then notably in preseason games will determine who's on the final 53-man roster.

This much is certain: The backfield looks much different than it did a year ago, and that's a positive development for the Bears. There's more speed and explosiveness within the group, which should lead to more production in 2019.

Greg Gabriel is a former NFL talent evaluator who's an on-air contributor for 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @greggabe.