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Bears free agency preview 2018: Running backs

The Bears have one of the best running back duos in Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen. A third well-rounded runner couldn't hurt, though. Examining the running back open market.

New Orleans Saints v New York Giants Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Say what you will of Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen's specific and sometimes limited talents: there's no denying that together they create a special one-two punch in the Bears' backfield. For everything Howard can't do as a receiver and explosive tailback, Cohen instead becomes Chicago's home run hitter that run routes and takes carries to the house. For everything Cohen can't do between the tackles to grind down a defense, Howard relentlessly wears on defenders.

As a pair, Howard and Cohen rank right up there with some of the other best back pairs in the NFL, but not quite at the level of the Saints' Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. Not many can say they have a tailback who averages 4.5 yards a carry as one of the most complete zone runners in football in Howard, as well as a player who can line up all over your offense in Cohen.

That means that as the Bears look to retool and upgrade much of their roster at other higher priority positions such as wide receiver and edge pass rusher, running back falls a bit off the wayside in lucrative investments. Seeing as how a team like the Eagles won the Super Bowl with similar one dimensional and or versatile talents such as LeGarrette Blount, Jay Ajayi, and Corey Clement though, taking a look at a third cheaper useful runner might not be the worst idea.

At worst, this would be someone that gives the more heavily used Howard and Cohen a spell. Especially when considering that both might be on the field together more often in creative packages in Matt Nagy's new offense. At best, he proves useful and offers something different while juxtaposed to the two men ahead of him. Because for as much as Howard and Cohen already offer plenty, having a running back behind them that can give you the best of both worlds as a runner and receiver would boost the Bears offense at a highly underrated level.

If Nagy's offense is to be designed at getting athletes into space and for players to not have one set position, then having a third running back to use in unique formations makes perfect sense. Howard isn't going to get the ball thrown to him unless as a desperate measure. And Cohen isn't going to get more than 10-15 carries a game, unless the game plan necessitates it.

Finding the happy middle with a third guy here works like a charm for Nagy and company.

An in-house option is a waiver claim and 2017 undrafted free agent in Taquan Mizzell. His affordability and youth makes him a flexible premium bottom of the roster player. Seeing as how he isn't a pending unrestricted free agent, he's in a different distinction and won't be detailed here. A talented runner and receiver out of the backfield, make no mistake that he is still in the discussion as well as competition.

Let's window shop potential depth running backs on the open market for the Bears.

Benny Cunningham, Bears

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Much like with their backup quarterback situation and Mark Sanchez, the Bears could simply elect to retain Cunningham's services. The pending unrestricted free agent in Cunningham proved serviceable in his first season in Chicago operating primarily as a third down back. 240 receiving yards and more than a few big plays from a third runner on screens, is eye-opening.

Cunningham, who will be 28-years-old by next season, already has familiarity with the Bears and a leg up on any potential suitors in bidding. Chicago and new running backs coach Charles London will evaluate every avenue available to them in this regard. The in-house bargain option is always near the top of that evaluation.

That isn’t to say that Cunningham would reinvent the wheel with a more aggressive and on-your-toes offensive scheme. It's more that his skill-set as an underrated receiver (as well as underused runner with only nine carries in 2017) fits in tune with the constructs of Nagy's tempo attack. Another one-year deal around a bar of $800,000 to $900,000 for him is very doable for a Bears team with expected cap flexibility.

Shane Vereen, New York Giants

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Three years ago, Vereen was an integral piece of a back by committee for a Super Bowl champion Patriots team. Any time you can possess a second or third tailback that produces almost 400 yards rushing and 400 yards receiving, you have yourself the makings of a machine-like offense. To their credit, the Patriots have done that for years. From Kevin Faulk in the 2000's, to Vereen in the early 2010's, a depth running back in this mold was a staple player for them. Not necessary to keep once they found a younger option, but guys who played crucial roles nonetheless.

Once New England decided to let him walk, it paid off for Vereen in the vein of a lucrative - for his position - three-year, $12.5 million dollar deal signed with the Giants in 2015. He would play well initially, but a triceps injury suffered early on in his second 2016 season sidelined him for most of the year. Ironically, New York would end a four-year postseason drought in his absence. IN 2017, he'd return to form, albeit at an extensively expensive pay rate for a pigeonholed role for one of the worst teams in football.

The Giants, who hold the No. 2 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, will almost assuredly be looking towards the future and a potential full scale rebuild while Eli "I somehow beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl twice" Manning plays out the string. That makes retaining Vereen at almost a $4 million cap hit a realistic impossibility, as it should be noted they already restructured his contract once after the 2016 season.

Taking on that amount of dead cap from a Vereen release for a team looking to start over and with a bevy of slated space is no issue. And that should put Vereen firmly in reach for the Bears as the 28-year-old is anything but done with his playing career.

In Nagy's offense in particular, Vereen presents an upgrade from what Cunningham would offer as he is both a better athlete and more complete runner. 500-600 all-purpose yards over roughly 90 total touches is what should be reasonably expected from any third running back in the Bears' offense. That's in line with what Vereen has done in his professional life. As he's still in his physical prime, he has enough left in the tank to keep chugging along at that threshold. If there was to be the Bears' Clement-type in a comparable mold of someone to buy low with great reward, it'd be Vereen.

The only snag with the Bears making a move on Vereen is how much he'd cost as he's much polished, experienced, and talented than most anyone available they'd be seeking for their backfield stable. He's not going to receive anything close to his $4 million average from New York as he's past the glow of leaving a Super Bowl team for greener pastures. What'd be more in line financially is a two-year deal for $4 million, with $2 million guaranteed. Given that the Bears should sit at around $80 million in cap space once expected roster cuts are made, that's pennies for what could prove to be a welcome and fresh feature to their offense.

Rex Burkhead, New England Patriots

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No one does the specific role running back like the Patriots. As evidenced by the amount of guys they churn out and use successfully from Faulk and Vereen, to James White and Dion Lewis, and now Rex Burkhead.

The pending free agent Burkhead turned in a respectable 518 total yards on 94 touches in his first season with New England. Coming on a one-year, $3.15 million dollar deal, he played past his contract figures. Among every NFL running back in the 2017 season, Burkhead ranked fourth overall with an 83.3 percent catch rate, snagging 30 of his 36 targets. A forceful offensive sprinkle that gave the Patriots similar talents in comparison to White and Lewis, he helped New England march along to another top-five overall offensive performance over the course of the season.

As free agency sits a little less than three weeks away, there are serious questions as to whether the Patriots bring Burkhead back. Re-signing Burkhead to term would as mentioned, be redundant with White and Lewis already in the fold. Speculation maintains that the Patriots would seek another workhorse runner in the red zone instead, especially as Burkhead wants more of a commitment. It depends on how much he'll demand from the notoriously ruthless (but intelligent) Patriots.

In the context of what the Bears would be seeking, Burkhead essentially offers the same abilities that Vereen does, but is younger, has less wear and tear, and is without any injury history. It could be argued that Vereen is a better player at the moment, but that Burkhead has more upside when properly deployed. That puts him in an excellent spot to cash in.

If the Bears do put a bid in on the 27-year-old Burkhead, figure a contract around the lines of two years for $5 million, with $2 million guaranteed. A tad more pricey for a depth runner, but worth it for his small efficient bursts.

Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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Of every direction listed, Martin is a possibility but is also the most unrealistic with the worst value. It's been two years since the appropriately coined "Muscle Hamster" has lived up to that moniker as suspensions and injuries have worn the 29-year-old down. In releasing him earlier this week, the Buccaneers could no longer reasonably keep around a player they were paying roughly $7 million per season for less than 500 yards of production.

The question concerning Martin is whether he intends to age gracefully during his last few playing years as a complimentary running back, or whether his ego of the past paints him as a workhorse he no longer is. That, for the fact of the matter, is false anyway. In six seasons in Tampa Bay, Martin only played 16 games twice. The other four years were as disappointing as his 2017 season was. His 490 total all-purpose yards wouldn’t be bad if he was the Buccaneers second or third running back. But when he’s the No. 1 being paid as such, it’s a root problem.

Martin’s production was also much more inefficient in relation to his counterparts. It took him almost 50 more touches to reach the levels of Burkhead and Vereen. That calls into as question as to whether he’s capable of being a depth runner. This kind of running back has to be able to maximize what is at most, 10-15 touches a game, if that. They have to play well in the small sample size they’re afforded. Giving someone like Martin that output and him morphing it into a cloud of dust is wasteful.

From that perspective, we’ll gauge Martin from opposite ends of the spectrum. If he seeks feature back money, he won’t be on the Bears’ radar. If he’s resigned to what he’s become and ready to become a valued veteran, expect a deal in the realm of one-year for $2 million, with the entire contract guaranteed. Anything beyond that for a player who has proven to be unavailable when his team needs him most for a variety of reasons, is a mistake.

At that price tag, a Martin failure is palatable for Chicago’s roster health. Expecting high reward is a fool’s bargain with the “Muscle Hamster”. And at minimum if he doesn’t pan out, puts the Bears back at square one with Howard and Cohen. Not a bad place to be in.

Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron, and is a contributor to The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.