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Underappreciated or overvalued? Determining Jordan Howard’s place with the Bears

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As the NFL values the running back less, Howard’s future with Chicago could be up in the air. Gauging how the Bears can and should move forward with the runner.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Chicago Bears Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

A man of few words, Jordan Howard is the quintessential NFL player that lets his game do the talking. He punches in, runs over defensive opponents, and punches out. There’s no extra pomp from how he carries himself after fighting through eight man box after eight man box. He plays for his teammates, his family, and only then does he think of himself.

Right now, the bruising Howard is the Bears’ offense, at least he was during the 2016 and 2017 seasons: where it felt as if Chicago tried to ban the forward pass. The former fifth rounder’s perseverance was a testament to rising above despite the limited offense around him, and his own limitations as a running back without an extra gear. He’s the fastest to 10 100-yard games in franchise history. Yes, faster than the great Walter Payton. He’s already 14th in Bears’ rushing with 2,435 yards, and at his current pace would be Chicago’s second all-time leading rusher if he played eight seasons on the lakefront.

There’s no denying Howard’s a special runner with a unique combination of power and patience. The eye test and numbers don’t lie.

However, as the Bears move into the future with offensive weapon diversity and creative game-planning under Matt Nagy, it’s fair to wonder what Howard’s role with the team is now. And whether he even has a long term future with them.

Given rumblings of non-unanimous favor for Howard at Halas Hall, everything needs to be considered for one of football’s underlying backfield conundrums.

The Nagy factor

In early March, a lot of reputable smoke surrounded the Bears making a play for now Browns’ wide receiver Jarvis Landry by trading Howard. Of course, this wasn’t received well publicly as Howard is the only recent consistent offense anyone is comfortable with in Chicago. The nature of overreactions and being prisoners of the moment came into play.

But a new coach’s evaluation, such as Nagy’s, always comes first. In this case, reports during trade proposals stated that Nagy and his offensive staff weren’t particularly enamored with Howard’s issues as a receiver out of the backfield. In an offense with significant amounts of West Coast foundations, where the running back is absolutely necessitated to be a safety valve for the quarterback, that’s an issue.

What this boils down to, is that when Nagy’s being sold as an offensive guru that wants to diversify the Bears’ offense, that includes everything. That means making life easier for Mitchell Trubisky. That means creating matchup problems whenever possible. And it means considering eliminating players that aren’t close to ideal fits such as Howard.

This is especially true when Nagy wants opposing defenses to be constantly thinking, instead of naturally reacting to formations and plays. With the one-dimensional Howard in the backfield, Nagy may believe that he loses that element of surprise, even if defenses have to respect an upgraded passing game more: which could theoretically open up improved running lanes.

Of course, those trade rumors quickly dissipated once Allen Robinson became available and the Bears’ focus shifted towards acquiring a more complete receiver. Then a coach had to publicly posture as well as still do his job in keeping everyone on the roster happy.

“You watch him on tape and you see his style of play. It’s unique but it’s a good unique,” said Nagy of Howard during the 2018 Scouting Combine. “He’s a tough runner with size but he can still be elusive.”

For now, Nagy has to live with and appreciate what Howard actually brings to the table, and what he leaves aside.

Run, run, and run some more

In terms of being a pure runner and nothing else, one could count only a handful of tailbacks that are legitimately better than Howard. His vision for a zone blocking scheme, which the Bears under Nagy will carry over, is elite. His ability to press the hole and wait for a seam to burst through is special. His unwillingness to go down easy is something to take in.

Through 29 career starts, Howard has made a name for himself with this skill-set and with no shortage of memorable moments.

A run through a host of Ravens defenders that helped preserve a Bears’ overtime victory on the road.

Powering through an injured shoulder while taking direct hits to convert a third down against the Steelers.

Howard makes these types of plays routine. His merit lies in the fact that he transcends past less-than-ideal speed by creating positive yardage no matter what. He doesn’t have that ability to burst through for a long touchdown because his last gear won’t allow it, but it doesn’t matter. His draft profile was wholly accurate in this regard. He’s going to dictate the terms of play over a longer period of time, bar none. That’s how you average 4.6 yards a carry through two seasons, which comfortably places Howard among the league leaders in the top-10 since then.

In a stable offense with a multitude of weapons and on a rookie mid-round contract that pays him a total of a little over $1.3 million in 2018 and 2019, Howard has a role. If the NFL continues to move in a manner where defenses get smaller to combat high-flying passing offenses, a power running game with Howard as a centerpiece makes sense. That ideal is few and far between, but a possibility.

There are others with more natural talent, such as Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell, but they also struggle to find proper worth on the open market. Everyone knows Howard is more than likely getting the ball on any given play. That makes the definition of easy offense being a well-blocked Howard run.

A Catch-24

Ah yes, the well-documented struggles of Howard in catching the football. In two seasons, despite being targeted just 82 total times, the 23-year-old has 12 drops. That’s by far the most of any running back since 2016. He led all running backs in drops two years ago and that wasn’t remedied last season in a meaningful way with efforts made. To attempt to help, the Bears targeted Howard almost 40 percent less in 2017, as they had someone they could reliably throw to out of the backfield in Tarik Cohen.

Plays such as this drop by Howard on the final goal line stand of the game against the Falcons in the 2017 opener, somehow still happened far too often in comparison.

To his credit, Howard’s overall catch rate on targets did improve as he caught 23 of 32 passes that went in his direction, giving him a catch rate of 71.9 percent. That’s a jump from a beyond mediocre 58 percent in his rookie year. Howard joined the the company of tailback stalwarts such as the BengalsGiovani Bernard (71.7) and Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey (70.8). However, Bernard was targeted almost double that of Howard with 60, and McCaffrey received 113 targets.

The sample size at a glance isn’t reflective of Howard’s ability as a receiver because catch percentage on targets don’t reflect receiving ability. Targets are counted as any time the ball goes in your direction, and it could have been merely an errant pass, or you were locked down in coverage. Furthermore, Howard had an alarming five drops on roughly less than double the opportunity that Bernard received, and roughly quadruple less the chances McCaffrey saw come his way.

Another player that Howard is often compared to in receiving, is his 2016 Draft counterpart in the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott. Elliott is who beat Howard for the rushing crown in their rookie season and who is hailed (properly) as a better player. But if you look at the receiving statistics, Elliott is only six receptions (58 to 52) ahead of Howard thus far in their careers. What gives?

Once again, that’s another misleading number as for one, Elliott missed six games in 2017 and has four less overall starts than Howard. Plus, of Elliott’s 77 targets to this point, he’s only had two drops. Elliott also averages almost 10.9 yards a reception, while having that higher overall catch rate. Howard’s 13 drops on 82 targets and paltry 8.1 yards per catch pales in comparison.

Not to mention that Dallas uses Elliott as a staple of their offense both as a workhorse in carrying the ball, and in being a viable check down option for Dak Prescott. The Dowell Loggains Bears with Howard, only operated with the former, and for good reason. These two are nowhere near comparable as versatile weapons. Elliott can catch and make something out of nothing, while Howard wastes chances as a receiver. Receptions don’t tell the whole story.

Pay the man (?)

Cleveland Browns v Chicago Bears Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

Here’s where the water gets most murky with Howard’s value in Chicago long term. Realistically speaking, it isn’t smart to shell out for a one-trick pony at running back, a position that’s experienced a reinvigoration of talent across the NFL but is now almost being compensated just as much as kickers. Almost certainly, if Howard makes it to the 2018 season in Chicago (draft trades are considered), and if he plays according to previous standards, he’ll be seeking a contract extension going into the final year of his deal in 2019.

That’s not palatable for a team that will have to pay Trubisky an exorbitant amount of money should his development go according to plan, and should others such as Leonard Floyd begin to show consistencies as franchise defensive players. Prioritization is placed on core assets around playing quarterback, protecting the quarterback, and pressuring him.

As mentioned, even the all-around studs such as Bell have struggled to get their deserved paydays. While he’s produced more of late as the classic bell cow, Howard is more in line with the LeGarrette Blount’s of the world than he is with Bell. Blount has played with three teams since 2014, and is now on his fourth with the Lions. He’s gone from short term deal to short term deal as part of a stable of running backs in each city, because throwbacks such as him aren’t compensated with security anymore. There’s too much toll on the position in addition to the movement of a game that’s naturally moving towards the faster athletes to fit diverse passing attacks.

That makes for an interesting dichotomy as tailbacks who can’t catch the ball have less value than those who do, but then those who can, still don’t have nearly as much value in comparison to almost every other position on the field. Those that catch the ball, inherently lose worth because they’re getting more touches and more hits, every time they’re in play. Factor in how easy it is to find a rushing contributor that can make an immediate impact in almost any draft, and the modern NFL running back is in a constant lose-lose scenario.

Howard’s future in Chicago is limited not just because he can’t catch, but because it’s difficult to envision the Bears placing a premium on any kind of running back moving forward. It’s not efficient team building. Him attaining 1,300 yards rushing and 60 receptions without a bevy of drops wouldn’t make a noticeable difference. It only hurts his case that he’s not capable of that production. Make the universal lose-lose scenario tenfold for Howard.

Nagy’s feelings likely won’t change regarding Howard, especially as he receives less pass targets in 2018. For now, the cheap bulldozer fits in a multi-faceted offense that focuses on his strengths. When the time comes to pony up for Howard, he won’t fit on the field and financially. That creates the potential for a move to materialize at any moment and for the Bears to salvage what they can.

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