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The Layman’s Guide to Bears Free Agency: Backup Running Back

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Have you ever gone into free agency and hear scores of names but aren’t quite sure who these players are? Well, you’re not alone.

Super Bowl LII - Philadelphia Eagles v New England Patriots
Kenjon Barner
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

In the fourth installment of the The Layman’s Guide to Bears Free Agency, I am going to peer into the minds of Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy, and ask: who is going to be the backup running back? If you missed the first three pieces about the backup quarterback, wide receiver positions, or “joker” tight ends, you can find them here, here, and here, respectively.

When you have a player like Jordan Howard as your starting running back, his backup needs to be able to do a little bit of everything. Most of us would agree that Howard is an excellent runner and can hold his own with blitz pickup, but when it comes to being a receiving threat, he leaves a lot to be desired. This was the thinking behind signing Benny Cunningham to a 1-year deal last off-season.

Cunningham was able to be the yang to Howard’s yin. Cunningham can catch, make some people miss in the open field, pick up the blitz, and play on special teams. As a runner though, it was Cunningham’s turn to leave something to be desired. This is an aspect where I believe that the Bears can upgrade.

In all Honesty, I fear that when Howard is on the field, you will be able to guess the play from Half A Mile Away. I think of him as similar to a commuter train, making all the stops from Soldier Field to 52nd Street, with the occasional express run. But when your running back runs like Howard, he will occasionally take the Big Shot. If he goes down, that’s precisely when I need to have a good backup running back in My Life!

Sometimes A Fantasy football player will look for different traits when looking at players, mainly speed or goal line ability to rack up touchdowns. Don’t Ask My Why but I have a different opinion of what to look for in a football player, now You May Be Right but I want a well-rounded backup running back for this team. So last night I was Sleeping With The Television On and saw a few possibilities for the Bears. So let’s step into the film vault and take a peek, shall we?

Note: I am only looking at unrestricted free agents in this series. There will inevitably be players available via trade and who are cut, but we simply cannot discuss those names without a massive amount of speculation.

Benny Cunningham

Let us start with the Bears current free agent backup running back. As I mentioned earlier, his biggest flaw is simply that he isn’t a great runner. What I meant by that is when he takes a handoff, he is not at his best. Typically, Cunningham has been most successful as a receiver out of the backfield. He also is really good on special teams, which is a huge advantage for him. That’s not to say that he couldn’t fill in as a spot-starter, but it isn’t his strongest suit.

As I mentioned, running the ball isn’t one of Cunningham’s stronger suits. This was a poorly blocked play, which came in a game where the offense struggled mightily, but this is reminiscent of Cunningham’s style. He likes to bounce the ball outside prematurely. Perhaps he will have better success in the heavy zone scheme that the Bears will be running, but it is an issue.

If you can give him a little room to run, he is a much different player. I really like Cunningham the receiving back and plays like this are why. You see he has enough speed with a just little shake and bake as well.

One of the main reasons I really wouldn’t mind seeing Cunningham back is because he is an excellent special teams player. If this is finally the year that the Bears part with Sherrick McManis and/or Joshua Bellamy, then they can ill-afford to also lose a player like Cunningham.

This would not be a shocking move in any way, I would be happy but not ecstatic. If they were to move on, depending on the player, I probably wouldn’t bat an eye. That’s just kind of who Cunningham is. He is a nice, solid football player, without any truly great qualities. But then again, we are talking about backup running backs here.

Chris Ivory

Here is a back that has been around for a bit and who was recently released by the Jaguars. Personally, after watching his tape, I am not a huge fan of Ivory. I liked what I saw of him back in his Saints days, but if you look at the numbers, he has dropped off considerably since then. The main reason he is on the list is that since his release, his name has come up quite a bit*.

*Doug Martin was also recently released by the Buccaneers. However, he has been awful recently and his career is wildly boom-or-bust. I don’t think he is a great fit for the Bears as a backup.

I normally don’t show running plays from this angle—It is much more difficult to judge speed when the player is running towards you—but the most redeeming quality that Ivory still has is his speed. The Jaguars run more of a power-based running game. It isn’t necessarily easy to project a player from power to spread, and vice versa, so I am using an off-tackle run that give you the best idea of how he would look here.

This is a zone run and shows you how he is able to pick his way through the blocks as they are presented. He does a good job of reading his center getting beat immediately and bouncing this play outside to another lane. He finds a seam between the tight end—who blocked down—and the guard. He then shows a nice spin move off of the tackle attempt by the safety and then his speed in the open field.

Having better hands than Howard is absolutely a prerequisite for being his backup. This is a screen pass all the way. I like the burst that Ivory still has in the open field. His is faster, more elusive, and has better hands than Howard.

The best part about Ivory to me is that he has really always been a backup. He knows his role and how to play it. While I think he offers a tad more on offense than Cunningham does, the downside is that he is nowhere near the special teams player. There is a part of me though that believes that Ivory would be a better fit in this system, based on his skill-set.

Kenjon Barner

Cue up the Mark Helfrich connection...now. A few weeks back, I broke down how De’Anthony Thomas might be a fit for this offense. His running mate at Oregon was Barner. The main differences between the two are size and the fact that Barner has more ability as a running back. While Barner is smaller than the first two names, he brings more speed, better hands, the ability to play as a wide receiver, and he can be a return man.

This first video is basically a staple of what the Oregon running game did so successfully. It is simply a zone sweep, where the left guard pulls to seal the edge. These are the kinds of running plays where you can allow Barner to use his skills the most. I wouldn’t put it past a guy like Helfrich to get the most out of Barner at this point in his career either.

Here is an example of Barner’s versatility. He lines up at the top of the screen and basically just runs a fade route from the 26-yard line. He goes up, makes the midair adjustment, and comes down with the catch as a wide receiver would. I wouldn’t be surprised to see multiple players on this team, that can also line up as wide receivers, who aren’t necessarily wide receivers.

A backup running back needs to be able to help out on special teams. Barner has the ability to return both kickoffs and punts. I am not sure if he covers kicks as well, but I would be surprised if he doesn’t do some of that as well.

Barner was not a highly sought after player last off-season. I would expect that he would also come with relatively little fanfare or guaranteed money this year too. The main reason why I think he is a fit here is Helfrich, who likely wants a familiar face and someone that he knows can run some of the outside plays that will stretch the field horizontally.

With a (likely) larger role for Tarik Cohen next season, it might not be a bad idea to get another return man in the building. From an overall skill-set standpoint, I think that Barner likely fits the offense and the team’s needs better than most of the other names out there right now. In my opinion, Barner fits the bill better than any other player that the Bears are likely to sign.

All free agents have warts, especially those that are coming in to play a backup role. The key here is to compliment the other talent on your roster as well as the scheme you are running.

So which of these players is going to make Nagy and Pace say C’Etait Toi (You Were The One)?