As we continue with the unlikeliest (sneaky) most important Bears for the 2018 season, we move on to backup running back and special teams ace Benny Cunningham. If you missed number 7 on bruising strong safety Adrian Amos, you can find that here.
Originally I was going to combine this with both Cunningham and Tarik Cohen but I think it is pretty plain to see how Cohen is going to impact the team. That said, I think it is important to note how each of the Bears backup running backs will affect the 2018 season beyond simply taking hand-offs.
Cohen is likely to line up as much as a receiver—if not more—than he is at running back. The threat he provides has already been established during his rookie season. In addition to being a legitimate threat out of the backfield and as a slot receiver, Cohen was the team’s primary punt and kick returner last season. I have no idea if they have any plans to change that but this is where Cunningham starts to make a name for himself.
Despite the fact that the NFL is trying to eliminate kick-offs, the role of a kick returner is still a valuable one. If the league is going to reward you with an additional 5 yards for taking a knee in the end zone, then by all means, do it. While Cunningham is not quite the electric player that Cohen is, he is a much more consistent kick returner. He knows when to take a knee and generally, is going to provide a solid amount of return yardage.
It all depends on your perspective, but with where the game is going, a straight-ahead runner like Cunningham—who is going to get you right around the 25-yard line on each return—is a better option in my opinion (than the boom-or-bust Cohen). I am generally a fan of a team being aggressive over cautious but I just don’t think Cohen is a good option as a kick returner. Give me the 25-yard line and call it a day.
Kick returning is a small part of Cunningham’s game however. Much of his value to the Bears lies as a special teams ace. The Bears have slowly amassed some really good coverage specialists. Cunningham is at the top of the heap when it comes to tracking down would-be returns. As a matter-of-fact, Cunningham actually tied with Sherrick McManis for the team lead in special teams tackles with 12.
While I don’t want to pepper this list with too many special teams players, I think the 3rd phase becomes a much more important aspect when you have a competitive team. The past few years have been abysmal, and the special teams were right there with the rest of the team. This year feels different though. The defense is already competent, and the offense appears so as well (on paper at least). The role of special teams for the 2018 Bears will be exacerbated because of this.
On offense, Cunningham can do a little bit of everything. He is solid as a runner but really does a nice job on passing plays, as both a receiver and blocker. I would expect to see him used extensively on 3rd downs and in 2-minute situations. There is just enough of a threat of him to run the ball to keep defenses honest. With his combination of speed, elusiveness, and toughness, Cunningham is the perfect complement to Jordan Howard and Cohen.
As unsung heroes go, Benny Cunningham is right up there with the best of them. Whether it be on offense or special teams, if you want a treat, keep your eyes affixed on number 30, he won’t dissapoint.