By Bryan Dietzler
The second positional preview in my series on the Bears players will cover the running backs. The Bears’ running back position, in 2016, was a position of strength. Jordan Howard led the way with a record-setting campaign and helped the Bears win the three games they won. He was a pleasant surprise, and hopes are high that there is no sophomore slump with him this year.
Chicago has a bevy of running backs behind Howard and the depth there is strong. In fact, it might be the deepest position on the team. Some of the guys behind him have a lot of talent and can make Chicago’s offense competitive.
So now, let’s look at the players at running back the Chicago Bears currently have listed on the roster heading into training camp and see what the future holds for them.
Howard had a spectacular outing in his first season in the NFL. The Bears stole him in the 2016 NFL draft as he lasted until the fifth round. He started out slow, due to the talent ahead of him, but thanks to an injury to Jeremy Langford, he got his chance and he shined. He set the Bears’ rookie record for rushing yards and was a direct contributor to all three of the Bears’ wins in 2016.
Sometimes, what happens to rookies who have great first seasons they have a decline in performance the next season. Opponents figure out how to stop them, or they suffer from lapses. Could this happen to Howard? We hope it doesn’t.
It’s easy to say that Howard will be the starter in 2017, hands down. Unless he gets hurt or is a complete washout in training camp (not going to happen), there is no way he won’t be the starter. I think he will have another outstanding season playing behind a line that will be much improved.
Outlook: Howard will be the starter heading into the season if he doesn’t get hurt. The Bears will probably keep his carries down in training camp to keep him fresh for the season which is a smart move. Should he hit that “wall” we talked about, there is depth behind him that can help pick up the slack. But, I don’t think that Howard will hit that wall in 2017.
Langford began as the starter in 2016 but, following an injury, Howard took over, and the Bears never looked back. He has a lot of talent and a promising future but will it be with the Bears? If Howard were to stumble, Langford could pick up the slack and help keep the running game going but can he stay healthy? And will they be a drop-off in talent and production if he were to be inserted in the lineup?
I believe that Langford is a solid player that the Bears can count on if Howard were to get injured. If he can stay healthy, then Chicago will have some nice depth and someone that can pick up the slack if needed.
Outlook: Langford will be the Bears’ second running back and will probably work in a rotation with Howard spelling him as needed. I would think that Chicago would want to use Langford more often because he is skilled and can add a different dimension to their offense. Look for him to get quite a few more carries in 2017 to help relieve Howard and keep opponents off balance.
Personally, I like Carey a lot and think that he could be an effective “between the tackles” running back. The problem with him is he gets hurt too often and misses significant time. He can be an asset on special teams as well as a third down back, and he can come into the game in a pinch. However, he is not an every-down back. With this being a contract year, he has a lot to prove.
But will the Bears give him a chance to prove that he is an asset and should stay on the roster past 2017?
I am not 100% sure that Carey will even be on the active roster following training camp. We already know that the Bears will keep Howard, Langford and Tarik Cohen. The battle will be for the fourth and a possible fifth running back spots. Benny Cunningham could be targeted for that fourth spot and could beat Carey out. Cunningham and Carey are in a similar mold, and the better of the two will make the roster. If Chicago does decide to have a fifth running back, then Carey should be able to make the team.
Outlook: The race is going to be a tight one between Cunningham and Carey. Because of his familiarity with the Bears, Carey would have an edge, but Cunningham may have an edge in overall talent. I think it comes down to whichever one remains the healthiest in training camp and knowing Carey’s history; he might not make it through intact. Consider him on the bubble with his chances of making the team at about 50/50 at the time of this writing.
Chicago pulled a lot of guys off other team’s scrap heaps during free agency and former Los Angeles Ram Benny Cunningham was one of those guys. He comes to the Bears with five years of NFL experience which include just three total starts. He has rushed for 748 yards on 171 carries with four touchdowns. Obviously, he has not been very productive, but he hasn’t had a lot of opportunities. So why did Chicago bring him in?
The Bears may have been looking for someone act as a bruiser between the tackles when they needed a short pickup on third down or goal line score. Carey hasn’t been able to stay healthy so Cunningham could be the guy they think will replace him. As previously mentioned, there is going to be a battle between Carey and Cunningham and the healthiest guy will win.
Outlook: I think that the battle between the incumbent, Carey, and Cunningham is going to be a good one to watch. With Carey struggling to stay healthy and the Bears knowing his injury history, I think it’s possible Cunningham will win the battle and perhaps be the fourth running back, on the Bears’ roster this season.
Chicago went a different way than many felt they should have and drafted a small Division II player with a ton of talent. Known to some as the “Human Joystick” he can perform some “gimmick moves” none of which will help him on the football field. But he can play, well on it and that’s what the Bears need.
With his size, he is not going to be an every down back. Instead, the Bears will put in some special packages in, giving him just a few plays a game that might be big ones. They need all the help that they can get on offense and Cohen can help them. But just how much can he help them? He can run, and he can catch, but he can’t block a 300-pound defensive tackle. He might not even be able to block a linebacker. Ultimately, his ability to be an effective player will be determined in just a few snaps a game.
Outlook: Because he was a draft pick, he will make the team. Plan for him to be the third running back on the roster but play much less often than the other guys. He reminds me a lot of Garrett Wolfe (if fans remember him). If he can be a big-time playmaker, then he will have value, but if he falters and can’t perform at the NFL level, he needs to be gone quickly. But he won’t be gone this year.
Let’s see what he can do. Could he be the next Darren Sproles? Bears fans hope so.
Bouagnon is an undrafted free agent from the University of Northern Illinois and is a guy who is on the outside looking in as training camp gets ready to start. He is an appealing prospect as he had a productive career at NIU and is somewhat like Carey and Cunningham. He likes to pound the rock on the inside and could be used in short yardage situations.
The “book” on Bouagnon is that he is a bruising runner and tough to bring down. He is always going forward and hardly ever loses yardage. He sees the field well and is patient. But he is raw and needs work. Bouagnon doesn’t do much to make special things happen and isn’t a great pass catcher.
Outlook: Of the group, Bouagnon is the last guy in the pecking order. He may just be a body used to carry the ball and relieve the other running backs in camp. But if he can find his way in on special teams he might be able to gain a foothold there and make the roster. What is more likely to happen is that he gets cut at the end of the preseason and ends up on the practice squad.
Chicago’s running back group looks pretty good heading into training camp, but health will be a huge factor. If the key players can stay healthy and be productive, the running game will be successful in 2017. However, an injury to either Howard or Langford could set them back a ways. Hopefully, if that happens, another player will step up and shine. But who will that be?