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Bears roster breakdown, 90-in-90: Jordan Howard

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Our series examining the Bears 2017 roster reaches the brightest spot of the 2016 season: Jordan Howard.

San Francisco 49ers v Chicago Bears Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Beattie Feathers.

Rashaan Salaam.

Anthony Thomas.

Matt Forte.

*Drumroll please...*

Jordan Howard.

Those five names represent the progression of the Bears single-season rookie rushing record, which Howard eclipsed last year when he topped Forte’s 1,238 yards from 2008. Howard didn’t merely break Forte’s record — he became the fourth Bears running back ever to rush for 1,300 yards in a season, joining Forte, Thomas Jones, and Walter Payton, who did it nine times.

Of course, the careers of those rookie rushers diverged from there.

Feathers rushed for 1,004 yards in 1934, earned All Pro honors, and gained 976 yards rushing total for the rest of his career. Salaam played three more seasons after his rookie year, gaining 610 yards after bagging 1074 in 1995.

Thomas was the first holder of the Bears rookie rushing record to gain 1,000 yards again, doing it in 2003 and having a mini-resurgence for a few weeks in 2004, his last season in Chicago.

Forte became a Pro Bowl player and finished his Bears career 2nd to Walter Payton in rushing. He had five 1,000-yard seasons with the Bears; his lowest output in Chicago was 898 in 2015.

The question for Howard, then, is what kind of sophomore season will he have? Will he fail to live up to his brilliant 2016, (which was even more amazing when you consider he had only 12 total carries over the season’s first three weeks)?

Or will he continue to be the team’s spark plug and workhorse, the man who brings stability to an offense with three new quarterbacks while building on his team rookie record seven 100-yard rushing games in a season?

I’ll take door #2.

Biography

Age: 22 years old (turns 23 on November 2)

Experience: Second season

Height: 6-foot-1

Weight: 222 pounds

Contract and Salary Cap

Jordan Howard is in the second year of his rookie contract, a 4-year deal worth $2.6 million. Per Spotrac, he will make $540,000 in 2017, accounting for only .36% of the team’s salary cap. Not bad for a guy who last year produced 28% of its offense.

Reason for improvement in 2017

I’ll give you two reasons:

More reps + a better offensive line.

Howard didn’t win the team’s starting job until Week 4 last year, a vast difference from entering 2017 training camp as the team’s clear cut, locked-in starter. He has the full devotion of the coaching staff and will have plenty of opportunities to improve both his strengths and his deficiencies — namely his ability as a pass catcher, since he led all NFL running backs last season with eight drops.

Here’s how our Robert Zeglinski summed up Howard’s need to improve as a receiver:

For Howard, in the modern NFL where running backs such as the traditional Adrian Peterson who aren’t much of a third-down threat that are going the way of the dinosaur, he can’t afford to be a non-existent passing option. NFL attacks are opening up with better, more versatile athletes more and more, all to combat the speed of and increased athleticism that defenses have added in spreading them out. One day, the Bears will want to be one of those explosive, multi-faceted units, and Howard has to prove he can consistently be a part of that movement. [...]

The very nature of the Bears’ offensive structure demands Howard become a more complete back in his sophomore NFL season or risk taking a step back as everyone understands this is the man they need to stop to slow Chicago down.

If Howard brings more consistent hands to the table as well as sharper route running then there’s no reason to believe he can’t be north of 40 receptions in 2017. And he’ll have to be, if there’s any reasonable progression otherwise.

Why do I think he’ll improve as a receiver? Two reasons.

First, from everything I know about the man, his work ethic is impeccable. I suspect he would be a great worker even if he were a 1st round pick, but as a late rounder he is not just playing for his team’s success but his very future in the league.

Second, a running back improving his receiving abilities is on the easier side of skill enhancement. Hitting the JUGS in the offseason, for instance, is an obvious way for Howard to turn a weakness into a strength.

Howard’s other reason for improvement is an improved offensive line.

While we here at WCG have expressed our disenchantment with the grading system at Pro Football Focus (ESPECIALLY the offensive line grades), we agree with PFF’s assessment that the Bears have a top 5 offensive line.

Part of that is due to consistency — Hroniss Grasu’s injury last August triggered a chain of events that ended with then-rookie Cody Whitehair playing center for the first time in his career and the Bears scooping up Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton from Green Bay.

Kyle Long, meanwhile, missed eight games due to injury, leading to two veterans (Ted Larsen and Bobby Massie) getting acclimated to new teammates while anchoring the right side of the line.

This year is different. Long is back, giving the Bears a dominant interior with Whitehair and Sitton. At tackle, Massie and Charles Leno Jr. are out to prove that they are not the so-called “weak links” of this bruising o-line.

I expect even better play from the line, which will help Howard remain in the 1,300-1,400 range in rushing yards.

Reason for regression in 2017

Injuries.

The reason is basically always injuries.

Injuries ruined Feathers’s career and slowed Salaam’s and Thomas’s, although Salaam also suffered from a poor work ethic — what he termed “laziness.”

So Howard’s first obstacle is the same as that of every NFL player, especially running backs — his own body. Since starting his collegiate career at UAB, he’s been mostly healthy, with the exception of his lone year at Indiana, where he missed four games and parts of three others. He missed the team’s bowl game in December 2015 due to his recovery from knee surgery the month before.

Along with injuries, there is also the possibility that he played over his head in 2016 and will come back to Earth in 2017. Frankly, I don’t think that’s the case here. For one thing, it’s not as if the Bears had a brilliant offense built around Howard that prevented defenses from focusing on him. If anything, the opposite was at play, and yet he still performed.

Secondly, Howard and Ezekiel Elliott became the 19th and 20th rookie to run for 1,300 yards or more. All but one had another 1,000-yard season, and that one — Reuben Mayes — barely missed 1,000 yards in his 2nd season due to the 1987 players strike.

Point being, historically speaking, 1,300-yard rookie seasons aren’t flukes.

Final roster odds

If there’s a roster, Howard will be on it.