If it wasn’t for some injuries during the 2020 season, the running game of the Chicago Bears would have appeared much better then the final numbers would indicate.
They ended up averaging only 102.9 yards per game, which was 25th in the league, but they lost their number two tailback in their week three game for the rest of the season, the offensive line started getting dinged up in week five and that continued for several weeks, and then their lead back missed the game before the bye.
The Bears didn’t really stabilize the running game until after the bye week, so if you break the rushing numbers up into three parts you can see the roller coaster they were on. The Bears averaged 138 yards per game through week three, they only averaged 52.6 yards per game from weeks four through ten, but after the bye that number jumped up to 144.2.
Sure the level of competition and the play calling had a say so in the numbers improving from week twelve on, but the guys up front were also making holes and giving the running backs a chance.
Here’s what the Bears running back situation looks like this offseason.
David Montgomery - Signed through 2022 - Montgomery was effective in the passing game (only four running backs had more than his 54 receptions), and he proved himself as a featured back with 1,508 yards from scrimmage, which was fifth in the NFL. To illustrate the improvement in his game from his rookie year to the 2020 season, Next Gen Stats had him down for 114 rushing yards over expected this year, which was 9th best, after being 35th a year ago with -33 RYOE.
I’m still not to keen on him playing over 70% of the offensive snaps, I think a 60/40 split would be best for him and the team, so maybe in 2021 we get a more rested Montgomery that can hammer a defense.
Tarik Cohen - Signed through 2023 - Cohen’s game took a step back in 2019 after a fantastic 2018 season, but the entire offense that year was a train wreck. Cohen was primed for a nice 2020 before tearing his ACL in week three, but he’s expected to make a full recovery and be ready for training camp.
The Bears definitely missed him as Montgomery's back up, but they also missed his playmaking ability as a receiver out of the backfield and as a punt returner. His ability to line up anywhere and to play at the same time with Montgomery is a nice wrinkle for the offense. Part of the reason for his dip in production in 2019 was how often the Bears used him as a wide out. Lining up against corners isn’t as much of a mismatch as when he’s facing off against linebackers.
If the Bears remember he’s best as a running back that can split out on occasion rather than a receiver that lines up in the backfield every now and again, then I think he’ll have his best year ever in 2021.
Did you realize that Cohen is just 52 receptions away from being top ten all-time in Bears history? He averaged 68 catches a season his first three years, so if he stays healthy that’s within reach.
Ryan Nall - Exclusive rights free agent - Nall was an important part of the special teams which is why he was active on game day for all 16 games. In 2020 he played in 294 special team snaps (65%), but only 68 snaps on offense (6%). I would expect the Bears to bring him back to compete for the fourth running back spot. EDIT: The Bears did re-sign Nall for 2021.
Artavis Pierce - Signed through 2021 - If Pierce wants to stick on the active roster in 2021 he’ll need to prove he can play all the special teams. He gave the Bears some third phase film to check out towards the end of the 2020 season (21 snaps worth), but he’ll need to show it all through camp too.
I like his upside as a runner and receiver out of the backfield, but backups at this position need to show more in the NFL. Getting his college coach could give him a boost of confidence heading into the 2021 season.
Cordarrelle Patterson - Free agent - Patterson backs up at both running back and wide receiver and he’s an All-Pro kick returner. I would love to see him re-signed, because I think there’s value in his positional flexibility, but with the salary cap going down a bit it’ll be hard to justify another 2 year, $10 million deal. He’ll turn 30 in a month, so maybe the Bears can work out an incentive laden contract to keep him around.
2021 OUTLOOK - I would be surprised to see the Bears sign any veteran free agent running backs or draft any either. You can count me among the many that believe you can find tailbacks in the undrafted free agent market. If there’s a guy high on their board that is still thee on day three, then sure, but I’d rather they just wait and grab a couple young and hungry prospects as UDFAs.
For what it’s worth, the Bears did meet with North Carolina’s Michael Carter at the Senior Bowl.
What do you see playing out with the running backs this coming season?