Matt Eberflus is a defensive-minded head coach with a throwback style, so it makes sense that my 2023 Most Important Chicago Bears series has an old-school feel. An off-ball linebacker, a center, and a safety are on the list already, so I may as well continue with another position the NFL seems to have devalued, the running backs.
A season ago, the Bears led the league in rushing with 3,014 yards, and while quarterback Justin Fields accounted for 1,143 of that, their top two running backs were each over 700 yards. Chicago allowed their lead back from the last four years to leave for the Lions, but they added to the position in free agency and the NFL Draft to make up for the loss.
Chicago would probably prefer a backfield by committee with a fresh player always in to attack the defense, and Khalil Herbert, D’Onta Foreman, and Roschon Johnson all figure to make an impact this season. The Bears could even go four deep this year with Travis Homer if any of the top three can’t find a fit.
“You know how things go in the NFL now,” Herbert said via ESPN. “They’re doing things by committee. You need one, two, three really good guys that really carry the rock and there be no drop-off. I feel like as a group, we’ve got a really strong group. We’ve got guys who can take it to the house at any given moment.”
On paper, there is no bell-cow tailback, but if one proves worthy of more playing time, a lead back could emerge.
Herbert’s 5.7 yards per carry in 2022 led all running backs, so he’s probably the odds-on favorite to start for the Bears, but he’s never been very good in the passing game. He only had nine receptions last year and struggled in pass protection too. Pro Football Focus had him down for just 32 pass block reps in 301 total offensive snaps, giving him a 54.4 pass block grade. Herbert knows his deficiencies as a pass blocker, so he’s been working on that this offseason. If Herbert can become a viable part of Chicago’s passing game, he’ll lead the Bears’ backs in playing time.
Foreman only had five receptions and 14 pass block snaps last year for the Panthers in 353 offensive reps, and his pass block grade was a league-worst 14.8. He’s a decisive runner that has some power, but he also needs to prove he’s not a one-dimensional player.
The rookie Johnson brings an all-around game and low mileage to the Bears, so if he shows proficiency as a pass blocker, he’ll get some early reps and may eventually take over as the RB1 if the other two can’t get their pass protection squared away.
Homer excels as a pass blocker, and when the Seahawks used him as a receiver, he was more than adequate. His special team’s prowess likely keeps him on the 53-man roster, and if any of the other backs falter on third downs, Homer could see some time.
The Bears got a good look at how they’ll fit into the offense during OTAs and minicamp, and that will continue through training camp.
“They’re just all getting to learn what they’re supposed to do,” offensive coordinator Luke Getsy said last month about the running back competition. “As long as the guys feel really good about their responsibilities in all three phases — run game, pass game and protection game — that’s the most important thing we can get done right now, is to make sure their brains are ready to roll.”
The Bears ran the ball 56.19% of the time in 2022, which is the highest percentage in the NFL since 2009 when the Jets ran it 59.22%. I expect them to be near the top of all rushing categories again in 2023, and while Getsy may not call as many designed quarterback runs this season, the running backs will still get plenty of action.
How do you see the running back room shaping up, and do you think this team will still feature the run game?