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NFC North Roster Comparison: Running Backs

The Bears have long been famed for their running game, but Nagy and Pace have changed focus.

Wild Card Round - Philadelphia Eagles v Chicago Bears Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

This is the second installment in a series to look at the rosters in the NFC North. As much as possible, I’m trying to set aside any biases and just look at how the individual players stack up against one another. After starting with quarterbacks, I’m moving on to running backs. SB Nation has already released its list, and it placed the Bears’ group at the top, and fifth overall--ahead of the Saints and Alvin Karama. I have to admit that I find their reasoning a little shaky.

The Bears’ rushing attack underwhelmed in 2018, but Chicago is hoping swapping out Jordan Howard for Davis and third-round pick Montgomery will recharge its backfield. There’s reason to believe it will work...Davis played a major role in Seattle’s refusal to tank in 2018, gaining more than 500 yards (on 4.6 yards per carry) and leading the Seahawks’ tailbacks in receptions (34). Montgomery was an elite space-creator in college whom Pro Football Focus loved, even if advanced stats did not.

When the improvements to a roster come from a 500-yard back and a guy whose claim to fame is PFF likes him, I sort of feel the need to pause. I am a bit of a critic of the idea that teams need a bell-cow back, back placing the Bears rushers ahead of both the Cowboys (Elliott) and the Giants (Barkley) seems optimistic.

However, the Bears do not play in the NFC East, so let’s look at how things stack up in the home division.

#1) Green Bay Packers

Let’s get something out of the way--the Packers were at the bottom of the league last year in rushes per game, and their running backs are not asked to do much more than keep defenses slightly more honest against Aaron Rodgers’ passing attack. Almost any back playing for Green Bay will benefit from the change in expectations. However, this group did do well last year when they were given the chance.

Aaron Jones was 10th in the NFL in terms of defense-adjusted yards above replacement, and 7th in DVOA. He was 6th in terms of success rate, getting the yards he needed based on down and distance 55% of the time. He led the NFL in yards per attempt (5.5), per Pro Football Reference. In other words, Jones is a good, efficient running back. He would have been more impressive overall if not for a two-game suspension and an injury. One way or another, however, he is highly productive.

Jamaal Williams gives the Packers a second running back in the top thirty-two when it comes to success rate, and his DYAR and DVOA were also Top 25. That’s nice depth to have. To round out the group, Green Bay still has Kapri Bibbs (claimed off waivers) and added a 6th-round pick to their group (Dexter Williams). They picked up veteran fullback Malcolm Johnson as well.

In short, this is a complete group with a dangerous lead back who can run and catch, a reliable backup, and some diversity in the rest of the room.

#2) Chicago Bears

New acquisition Mike Davis was 11th in DVOA and 14th in success rate in 2018. That’s better than Tarik Cohen, who failed to qualify among rushers based on number of attempts but who had a negative score both in terms of DYAR and DVOA. Yes, Cohen made impressive things happen. He also ran backwards a lot, somehow being a boom-or-bust back with relatively few booms (3 rushing touchdowns, and a ‘longest’ run 7 yards short of what his quarterback recorded). Still, Cohen was 9th in the league in all-purpose yards, and he was the only NFC North player to crack the top ten in that category. Cohen is a dangerous receiving weapon, and that should count for something in this evaluation.

Cohen and Davis are also backed up by third-round pick David Montgomery. It’s always a little challenging to project a college player into the NFL except in general tiers, and Montgomery is a solid second-tier prospect. It makes sense that he fell as low as he did, but it’s also likely that he will provide real contributions to his team. Even if he spends his rookie year working his way into the system while spelling David and Cohen, the Bears seem to be in good shape at running back. There is not elite talent in this group, but there is depth and variety, and that matters in the modern NFL.

I am hoping that I am underselling Montgomery and that this group deserves to pass Green Bay, but until the rookie shows me more, I am being conservative in my evaluation. It is also possible, however, that I am not giving Detroit enough credit.

#3) Detroit Lions

Kerryon Johnson was 5th in DVOA, and his success rate of 53% was good for 12th. He was second in the league in yards per attempt (5.4). If not for an injury that kept him from playing more, he likely would have done a lot more damage to other teams. As it was, in 10 games (and only 7 starts), the rookie cleared 850 total yards from scrimmage, and he was on a pace to break a thousand yards rushing.

Meanwhile, Theo Riddick is a nice utility piece, but it’s probably telling that Pro Football Reference has him listed as a wide receiver for 2018, and the next season he gets a thousand yards from scrimmage will be his first. Zach Zenner and C.J. Anderson round out a running back room that has the virtue of being relatively complete, and that’s assuming Ty Johnson (a 6th-rounder out of Oklahoma State) doesn’t amount to anything.

It wouldn’t take much to convince me that the I have the Bears a little too high and the Lions a little too low, but until I know more about how Johnson’s knee is doing, and until I see more from one of the secondary backs, I think the overall position in Detroit is on shakier ground than the group playing for Chicago. The problem the Lions face is that they need Johnson for this group to be taken seriously, while both the groups in front of them have at least two dangerous players.

#4) Minnesota Vikings

The nicest thing that I can say about the Vikings based on their Football Outsiders’ stats is that they were held back by a really weak offensive line. The Vikings did not have a very dangerous rushing attack in 2018, and unless the Garrett Bradbury was under-drafted at #18, then Minnesota probably did not do enough to turn things around that dramatically. It’s worth pointing out that the entire group struggled to make anything of the limited holes they did gain, although from time to time Dalvin Cook showed flashes.

Offensive line woes aside, neither Latavius Murray (31st in success rate) nor Dalvin Cook (41st in DVOA) did much to help out the offense. Murray has moved on the the Saints, replaced by Alexander Mattison or Ameer Abdullah, depending on which depth chart you believe. If it’s Mattison, then Vikings fans better hope that the scouts who saw the Boise State player as a project with a 4th-round grade were wrong (he was taken in the third); it it’s Abdullah, then the Vikings are going to have to hope that a player waived by Detroit somehow takes a big step forward this season.

The Vikings are underwhelming at running back, and of all of the evaluations in this piece, this is the rank that I feel the most comfortable in.