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Saturday Spotlight: David Montgomery, Midwestern RB1

Throughout the 2020 NFL season, we’ll spotlight a Bears player in a weekly column. This week, we’ll take an in-depth look at Running Back David Montgomery

Chicago Bears v Oakland Raiders Photo by Jack Thomas/Getty Images

Name: David Montgomery

Position: Running Back

Nickname: Monty

Number: 32

Age: 23

Time with Bears: 1 season

“2nd and 4. They keep it on the ground, looking for room. Starts to stumble, it’s Montgomery but again breaking tackles as he did so often at Iowa State. One of the reasons they loved him in the draft. That’s a first down for Chicago!”

Show me a player who works harder for a 4-yard gain than David Montgomery. Better yet, show me a player who stays on his feet in a more graceful way than this. I’m willing to bet you can’t. Montgomery earns his $42,758.50 per-game check in small chunks, rarely busting the 50+ yarder and instead often fighting to turn short gains into intermediate plays. It’s important to have that caliber of player on your team. Just ask the Cubs. What happens when all your home run hitters go cold?

The Past:

January 3, 2016: Matthew Stafford throws for 298 yards, including 137 to Calvin Johnson, and the Detroit Lions defeat the Chicago Bears in a battle to avoid last place. For Chicago, Jay Cutler ends his best year statistically as a Bear by sinking his quarterback ranking in a 3-interception disaster of a game. Not to be forgotten, though, is the main news headline of the game.

Matt Forte is now a free agent.

At 30 years old, Forte was never going to be offered a record-breaking contract, by the Bears nor anybody. With a new GM looking to throw out the old regime, the common fear among fans was that Ryan Pace would offer Forte a 1-year contract for less money than he could make in free agency, and the veteran running back would test the free-agency waters rather than take a low offer just to retire with the team that drafted him. An even worse transgression occurred that offseason: The Bears refused to even offer Forte a contract at all. Perhaps assuming he would decline a veteran minimum offer, or perhaps just wanting to go another direction, the Bears waved goodbye to their second-most productive running back in history. When you’re second only to Walter “Sweetness” Payton, you’ve stamped your name in that team’s history.

The list of ball-carriers for the Bears over the following years is enough to make anybody’s head spin:

Jordan Howard, Jeremy Langford, Ka’Deem Carey, Tarik Cohen, Benny Cunningham, and Taquan Mizell. Of these, only Cohen remains.

Which brings us to the 2019 NFL Draft, in the Bears’ side of this story.

NFL Combine - Day 2 Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

When scouting a running back, you’re looking for a few things. They need to have quick footwork, they need to be powerful, they need to have vision to find the hole, and they need to have breakaway speed to turn that hole into a footrace with the opposing team’s safety. Montgomery came into the draft as a top talent at every trait except the deadly speed that few actually do possess. The young back from Cincinnati had been overlooked before. According to ESPN, he only received 6 Division-1 scholarship offers, and only Iowa State and Illinois were from power-5 conferences.

He ultimately landed with Iowa State, committing to their football program less than a year after his brother was arrested for murder. During his time with the Cyclones, he spoke on his relationship with his brother. “I give him $100 every two weeks. I pay for my bills. Then the leftover, I send to him. I try to keep low key with it.” After growing up in hardship and relative poverty, Montgomery was making a name for himself.

His ascent through the running back depth chart in Ames took no time at all; he wasn’t even listed on their preseason depth chart, yet finished the season with the second-most rushing yards (563) among running backs as a true freshman, behind sophomore Mike Warren. The next year, Montgomery outright took Warren’s job and burst onto the college football scene. His ability in both the run and pass game went on full display, as he rushed for 1146 yards and racking up 296 receiving yards in 2017. Averaging 4.4 yards per carry, Montgomery was known for breaking tackles and turning dead plays into short gains. After his sophomore season, it was clear the young running back was special.

His junior year in 2018 was a statement year for Iowa State, which as a program had climbed its way out of the gutters of the Big 12 to finish 3rd in the conference and in the top half of the standings for a 2nd year in a row. Montgomery led the charge, upping his yards-per-carry average to 4.7 and churning 13 touchdowns on the ground. Following his junior year, he opted to take his talents to the NFL, where the Bears hungrily awaited.

After trading their starting running back Jordan Howard for anything they could get for him (6th round pick), the Bears entered the 2019 NFL draft in need of a running back. They also did not have major draft capital after trades for Khalil Mack and (the draft pick used on) Anthony Miller left them without 1st and 2nd rounders, respectively. True to his form, Ryan Pace moved up again to select the young stud running back, keeping Montgomery in the Midwest where he had played his entire career to that point. The Bears paired him with young scat-back Tarik Cohen in hopes that he could be the bell-cow running back they had desperately missed since letting Forte walk out the door.

Montgomery started his career slow, as you might expect out of a receiver learning the playbook, or a linebacker learning the nuances of NFL blocking schemes. Most wouldn’t expect a running back to have such a steep learning curve, but if they watched Montgomery’s early games, they would come away with a clear conclusion: Montgomery doesn’t want to screw up. He would take handoffs and bounce, juke, dodge, weave, and all but yeet his way all the way to a 0.5-yard gain, all because he wasn’t decisive enough about which of those holes he really wanted to smash through. After a forgettable game against the New Orleans Saints in which they handed Montgomery the ball just twice (TWICE, for the people in the back), coach Matt Nagy famously uttered the words “I know we need to run the ball more. I’m not an idiot.”

Well, actions speak louder than words, and Nagy fed Monty plenty in the next game against the Chargers, with the rookie running back rushing 27 times for 135 yards and a touchdown. It was his first 100-yard rushing game of his career, and still only 1 of 2 such performances in which Montgomery has eclipsed that mark. His rookie year ended with injuries mounting around him, and especially taking the Bears’ loaded defensive front by storm, as the Bears finished 8-8 and missed playoffs.

The Present:

In the days leading up to the 2020 NFL regular season, we predicted the Bears to list both Cohen and Montgomery as the starting running backs for the team. Instead, the Bears actually named Montgomery the No. 1 running back, with Cohen and converted wide receiver Cordarelle Patterson as the backups behind him. True to that chart, the Bears have so far fed David Montgomery with 63 attempts through 5 games, 3 times as many as the next highest of Cordarelle Patterson (21). With Cohen on injured reserve due to a torn ACL, the Bears will rely on Montgomery even more as the season drags on, with colder temperatures requiring run-heavy approaches on Sundays.

In a surprise move, the New England Patriots released veteran running back Lamar Miller last week. The Bears swooped in and picked up the 29-year old running back on their practice squad, and the common consensus is that they will activate Miller sooner rather than later to fill a running back hole left by Cohen. Although Cohen was a “Swiss-army knife” player, taking snaps all around the field at different receiver and running back positions as opposed to the more traditional running back Miller, there are still carries on the table to be scooped up. For Montgomery, he’s yet to rush more than 16 times in a game this year, so this could be slightly concerning for his production. However, with the only players behind him being a converted receiver and a 9-year vet, Montgomery should at least top the 242 rushing attempts he had in his rookie year.

Worth noting for Montgomery, too, is the fact that the Bears did not go all-in on superstar running back Le’Veon Bell this week. Early rumors suggested the Bears may be a potential landing spot for the 3-time Pro Bowler after he was released by New York, but by the early morning after his release became official it was confirmed that the Bears were not in the running. With the former Steeler and Jet eventually opting to sign with Kansas City, the Bears can continue to feed their own stud David Montgomery as they hope to continue their strong start to the 2020 season.

The future:

Montgomery is currently playing on his “rookie deal”, a 4-year contract which will keep him in Navy and Orange through 2022. The Bears have to hope his production continues its upward trend; he is on pace for 790 yards, and that number should continue to grow as both the temperature drops and Cohen’s absence is felt more. After a rookie year in which he topped 1000 yards of total offense, Montgomery is quickly becoming the face of the Bears’ ground attack. If his rookie year is his floor, then his ceiling is higher than the Bears could have possibly dreamt of when they selected him in the 3rd round.

Against the Panthers, the Bears attack should be simple: run the ball, convert 3rd downs, and stay on the field to control the possession of the game. Carolina ranks as the 8th-worst rushing defense, allowing an average of 136.6 yards on the ground per game. After benching dual-threat quarterback Mitch Trubisky in favor of statue passer (with better vision) Nick Foles, the Bears will need almost their entire rushing production to be found through the traditional running game. Zone runs, sweeps, and blasts should be the strategy to get Montgomery in a rhythm to top 20 carries and 150 yards. With Nagy, though, you never can be too sure if the Bears will stick with the run if they struggle early. This makes for a tough prediction.

Week 6 prediction:

15 attempts, 90 yards, 1 rushing TD, 3 receptions, 20 yards