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Bears 2018 training camp preview: what’s Jordan Howard’s best role?

At running back, their best and deepest position, the Bears have a lot to figure for Howard and the explosive Tarik Cohen.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Cincinnati Bengals
One of the most productive runners in the NFL in the last two seasons, the Bears have to stick to what works with Howard.
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

No one is going to confuse either for the best running backs around. “Rumble Pak” Jordan Howard and “Joystick” Tarik Cohen have too many limitations from receiving (Howard) to size (Cohen) to be included among the league’s best. You’d be remiss to discount what they offer on an individual level according to their skill set, however, and to dismiss their place as key cogs for Matt Nagy’s offense.

The question with these two young studs is how they factor in to an offense that knows how to maximize their abilities. How Howard was used from 2016 to 2017, and how Cohen was deployed last season is going to shift in a way many won’t expect. That shift is to the Bears’ short and long term benefit.

I’ve already put Mitchell Trubisky under the microscope with Bears’ training camp soon arriving. Now let’s evaluate Howard and Cohen’s place in Chicago as the beaming hot Bourbonnais sun looms.

A bruiser, but is more needed?

A perspective for how successful Howard has been as a rusher alone, and at times, as the only threat in the Bears’ offense is sharply defined. Only the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott (2,614 rushing yards on 564 carries) and Steelers Le’Veon Bell (2,559 on 582 carries) have rushed for more yards in the last two seasons than Howard with 2,435 on 528 attempts. Though, note the difference in carries for this trio. More efficiency is what you want out of running backs. As purely a runner, not many can match Howard.

This is how Howard projects in a diverse offense: the workhorse that makes the most of his limited opportunities. Over his 29 career starts, Howard has averaged 18 carries a game. In an offense with more playmakers, there’s only ball to go around, so Howard will likely hover around the same number of attempts moving forward. Taking that number any higher isn’t conducive to his long term viability. Seeing as how Howard’s excelled despite not being excessively featured, that bodes well.

The question for the 23-year-old that always lurks in the shadows is his receiving ability. Nagy, as a playcaller, prefers to throw to his running backs. Look no further than Kareem Hunt’s 53 receptions on 63 targets in 2017. Cohen can offer the Bears a boost here as his main strength, but Howard is eventually going to actually have to catch at least one pass.

Therein lies the problem for a guy with an alarming 12 drops on a minimal 82 career targets. Someone that seemingly makes crucial drops in the biggest moments to boot: most famously against the Atlanta Falcons on the goal line in Week 1 of last season. Howard can get all the corrective eye surgery he wants. He can work with his position coach on the jugs machine and catch 100 passes before and after practice too. And then, his hands legitimately might be improved. Unfortunately, the pressure of a high leverage situation can’t be simulated.

Even if Howard does end up relatively surprising as a receiver in 2018, it’s unlikely the Bears offer him many more chances to potentially disappoint them than his career high 29 targets of 2016. As long as he’s under contract, Chicago’s coaches and Howard have to stick to their bread and butter with the 225 pounder. That means opening their offensive flow with him, and closing games out with a lead as he enjoys more seven-man defensive boxes due to the threat of a legitimate passing game. A traditional slow starter in camp and the preseason, Howard makes his money when the action matters due to the nature of his play style.

That’s Howard’s Bears’ role, and he’s fine in this niche. Don’t stray too far from it.

Small in stature, gigantic in hype

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Chicago Bears
Cohen is in position to be a household name as a one-touch player.
Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

When he was drafted, many said Tarik Cohen couldn’t compare to the established Darren Sproles. That it was laughable to see the diminutive former North Carolina A&T star as Sproles’ potential equal in terms of a dynamic, small all-around running back. Sproles was a unique talent that emerged in the mid-2000s and who thrived despite less than ideal size to play in the NFL. Sproles has since consistently tore up opposing defenses and special teams units for the Chargers, Saints, and Eagles on a level previously believed to be unprecedented for a 5-foot-6, 190 pound athlete. Once the ball is in hands, he’s a blur.

The 5-foot-6 an 180 pound Cohen could surely never match Sproles’ accomplishments, let alone be on the same trajectory as the best example of the player he could evolve into, right?

Interestingly, in Sproles’ first full season as a player in 2007 (after early career injuries): he produced 195 offensive yards from scrimmage with two touchdowns. Cohen in 2017 produced 723 yards (with more attempts, yes) and three scores. As a punt returner then, Sproles had 24 returns for 229 yards and one touchdown. Cohen as a punt returner: 272 yards and one score.

These statistical lines don’t mean that Cohen is going to absolutely transform into the Sproles that had at least 1,765 all-purpose yards from 2008 to 2016. One season isn’t enough to establish a trend for a career. It’s more that the direct juxtaposition of Cohen to Sproles isn’t far-fetched. The potential for game breaking ability across two phases is waiting to burst out of Chicago’s young budding star with experience. Just like it always has for Sproles.

Cohen is fortunate that he has a coach in Nagy who understands how to get the ball to him in space. A coach that will line him up all over the Bears’ offensive formations to create matchup problems against linebackers and safeties to blow games wide open. If there was a propensity to see a true breakout and consistent campaign, it’d be what’s in store for Cohen in 2018.

Versatile players like Cohen don’t come around often. The Bears have to use the power they have wisely.

A videogame duo

Two Bears’ offensive mainstays that need to continue to complement each other.

Days Howard and Cohen had collectively last year where they received by far the most touches together, like in the Bears’ win over the Steelers, can’t continue or happen prevalently under Nagy. Chicago has too many fresh offensive weapons at different positions not to take advantage of situations in an optimal fashion.

Where Howard and Cohen slot in are as more products of a fine-tuned Bears’ offensive machine. Howard is the featured runner and should almost never be used in another focused manner. He’s the offense’s engine first and foremost.

Cohen is the man defensive coordinators lose sleep over. The player you can’t effectively game plan for because you don’t know where he’s going to line up and what play design dictates out of his skills. He sets the Bears apart and helps them move the ball against monstrous defenses.

Where Howard doesn’t do well in pass catching, Cohen excels. Where Cohen can never be a feature runner because of his size, Howard gladly takes up the mantel and punishment with it.

Together, while they’ll never be seen as the end-all be-all duo in the NFL, Howard and Cohen form a complementary tailback pairing to be envious of. At their very best, they’re the Yin and Yang the Bears’ offense needs a perfect mix of.

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.