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Upsets, Underdogs and Dark Horses: Can Benny Cunningham Be the Primary Backup Running Back in 2017?

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In this ongoing series, I’ll spotlight a few Chicago Bears’ players that could be flying under the radar, but could also make an impact in 2017.

NFL: International Series-New York Giants at Los Angeles Rams
Benny Cunningham
Steve Flynn-USA TODAY Sports

In the third installment of the six-part series entitled: Upsets, Underdogs and Dark Horses, I am going to discuss Benny Cunningham’s chances of making the Chicago Bears roster in 2017 and displacing Jeremy Langford as the primary backup running back.

When Benny Cunningham signed with the Bears on March 21, most fans uttered the word “who?” Unless you are a rabid NFL fan, the amount of people who knew who the small-market back-up running back was, are about the same as the number of people who can correctly explain what a quark is (hint, it’s not many).

So who is Benny Cunningham? He was originally signed as an undrafted free agent by the St. Louis Rams in 2013 out of Middle Tennessee State. In a strange statistical quirk, Cunningham has exactly 1,500 yards from scrimmage in four seasons. He is also a seasoned kick returner, amassing 2,575 yards and missed having a return touchdown by this much:

The Bears have had some issues with the return game since the departure of Devin Hester. My guess is that, should he make the team, Cunningham would handle the kickoff duties, while Tarik Cohen would return punts.

As you can see in the video, Cunningham has really good wiggle for a player of his size. At 5-foot-10 and 210 pounds, I would expect to see a player that had more straight-line speed but less quickness. Quite the opposite as the 40-time coming out of MTSU was in the mid-4.5 to 4.6 second range. Not exactly a burner at the NFL level.

What he does have however, is excellent short-area quickness and acceleration. I am not very familiar with the Rams offense but it appears that they run a lot of ISO, traps and counters. Todd Gurley is good enough to run in any scheme and he is probably best when having a defined place to run, with his more succinct running style.

Cunningham appears to be a much better fit in a zone-scheme. He shows patience, vision and the acceleration to get to the next level. Once he’s there, he has a number of moves he can use to shake defenders. If you check out the highlights that the Bears posted on their website, you can see what I am referring to.

While not the jitterbug that Cohen is, Cunningham has the chops to leave linebackers and defensive backs grasping for air. He is not a one trick pony though. Cohen is a compactly-built player, with thick legs and arms. He can move his feet and pick up the tough yards when called on to do so.

The most important aspect of his game hasn’t even been touched on yet, his receiving skills. In 4 seasons in St. Louis/Los Angeles as a seldom used running back, Cunningham racked-up 93 catches for 752 yards and a score. That is pretty impressive given the amount of playing time he actually received.

I could see this signing as being viewed by the front office is a sort of combination of Howard and Cohen. Thick and powerful but with the ability to make defenders miss. He can catch the ball and return kicks. Sounds like the ideal complement to the workhorse Jordan Howard.

Given that Langford has struggled so much with breaking tackles and catching the ball, it really opens the door for a player like Cunningham to come and take his job. He already has a leg up on special teams and as a change-of-pace back. A strong showing in camp for Cunningham could spell the end of the Langford era in Chicago.

What do you think, can Benny Cunningham unseat the former fourth-round pick and add another dimension to the offense?

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