No matter what level of football is being played, coaches love if they have a position group competing for playing time when preparing for the season during training camp. Such is the case with the running back position group of the Chicago Bears. There are five players competing for three and perhaps four jobs (not counting the fullback position). Not only are they competing for who makes the 53-man roster, but also who becomes the lead back, as well as how the group as a whole will be used.
The obvious number one back heading into camp is third-year man Khalil Herbert who was third overall in total rushing yards last in behind quarterback Justin Fields and the departed David Montgomery. He may have been third in total rushing yards, but he was first among the running backs in yards per carry and explosive plays. Last year he finished with an average of 5.7 yards per carry, which is excellent at any level.
Herbert is big (5'9 – 215), fast (4.48), quick, explosive and elusive. He runs low to the ground, has excellent after-contact balance and can pop the big play at any given moment.
He is a big play running back.
That does not mean he doesn't have any weaknesses because he does. As good a natural runner as Herbert is, he is very average as a pass receiver and struggles as a pass blocker. In the NFL, if a running back wants to be an every-down back, he has to be at least a good pass blocker. Right now, Herbert is average at best in that area.
Can Herbert improve as a blocker? Yes! Blocking is all about "want to." If a player wants to become a good blocker, all he has to do is work at it. If a player doesn't want to be a good blocker, he never will be. It's really very simple.
The other area of Herbert's game that needs improvement is as a receiver. In his two years in the League, he only has 23 receptions for a 6.7 yard average. I don't see a natural hands catcher when I look at Herbert. He has some drops, and part of that may be concentration. Like blocking, it is a skill that can be improved, but unlike blocking, it isn't about want-to but rather practice.
Early in free agency, the Bears signed former Texan and Panther D'Onta Foreman. Since I have been following the Bears, they have not had a back like Foreman. Foreman is big (6002 – 233) and very fast for his size (4.46). Since coming into the League, he has always been the number two back on his team until last year. Following the trade of Christian McCaffrey from Carolina to San Francisco last year, Foreman became the lead back in Carolina, and he responded with some big numbers. In 11 games, he ran for 877 yards, a 4.5 yards per carry average and five TDs.
Foreman has never been used much as a receiver, but when asked, he has shown that he has sure hands and can get yards after the catch. He is a good pass blocker and can be trusted to protect the quarterback. As big as he is, he is capable of hitting the home run. While he may no longer be a sub-4.5 guy. With his size and power, he can move the pile and get the tough yards in short-yardage situations. He will help the Bears and challenge for a lot of playtime.
I don't think the Bears were necessarily looking to draft a running back this year, but when they got to the fourth round and Texas running back Roschon Johnson was still available, they jumped at the chance to select him. Johnson was never the lead back at Texas because they had the best running back in college football ahead of him in Bijan Robinson. Robinson not only was the best back in this Draft, but he may be the best back to come into the League since Saquon Barkley. Still, Johnson is very good. I venture to say that had he been at any other school, he would easily have been a lead back and a consistent 1000-yard rusher.
Johnson didn't time well at the Combine (4.57), but he plays much faster. We can see his speed in the open field and with his burst after a catch. His overall game is excellent in that he can run inside or out, run with power, is an accomplished receiver, and a very good pass blocker. He is also a darn good kickoff returner. His all-around game may be the best of any of the Bears' backs. All he needs is experience at the NFL level.
Another free agent the Bears signed was Travis Homer, formerly with Seattle. Homer's numbers will not stick out because he didn't get a lot of opportunities being the Seahawks' third back. So then we ask, "why did the Bears sign him?" Shortly after the signing Bears General Manager Ryan Poles went out of his way to praise Homer. This was a player that Poles personally wanted. He liked him while he was in college and liked what he saw of him as a backup in Seattle.
Homer isn't the biggest back, but he is very fast and tough as nails. Despite his lack of size, he was probably Seattle's best pass blocker, and he is also a very good receiver. Add to that the fact that he is a core special teams player, and we see a player who can be a valuable part of the roster.
The fifth back is Trestan Ebner, who was a late-round draft pick a year ago. Ebner never stood out when he got a chance to play last year, but he has excellent speed, can play in the third phase, and is a good receiver. Since this is his second year in the League, his play should dramatically improve.
Going into camp later this summer, Herbert will be the obvious number-one guy, but I do expect both Foreman and Johnson to challenge him strongly. Most clubs keep three running backs, but it wouldn't surprise me if the Bears keep four this year and fullback Khari Blasingame. In order for the Bears to do that Homer and/or Ebner really have to stand out in camp and during the pre-season and that includes them being dynamic special team performers.
Herbert, Foreman and Johnson will be the lead three, but how much each play is still to be determined. Most clubs don't have a "bell cow" running back anymore. They would rather use a rotation to keep players fresh. The key to a good rotation is having backs that complement each other and have different types of skill sets. In Herbert, Foreman and Johnson that is exactly what the Bears have. All bring something a little different to the table, which can be a problem for opposing defenses. It will be fun to see how this all plays out in August.