With the NFL Draft and free agency having come and gone, we’ll break down all sorts of fantasy-relevant questions entering the 2018 season. Up next is a look at what the arrival of head coach Matt Nagy means for the Chicago Bears’ third-year workhorse back.
The Bears had one of the splashiest offseasons of any team in 2018, and it was all about enhancing their pedestrian offense in the wake of the firing of John Fox and Dowell Loggains. After former Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy was hired to be their new head coach, he brought on former Oregon Ducks head coach Mark Helfrich, who is known for his up-tempo spread offense, as offensive coordinator. The team also signed Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, and Trey Burton to boost what was an uninspiring offense.
In his rookie season last year, Kareem Hunt put up a fantastic season under Nagy, with 1,327 yards and eight touchdowns on 272 carries. That put him at 4.9 yards per carry, tied for best in the league with Mark Ingram among running backs with a minimum of 200 carries. That’s pretty impressive for a guy running behind an offensive line that Pro Football Focus graded as just average last year.
Jordan Howard had similar usage, totaling 276 carries, but he gained only 1,122 rush yards, which breaks down to 4.1 yards per carry — still respectable numbers, especially for a back who was part of the league’s No. 29 offense in points per game (16.5).
While Hunt had five games with 5.0 yards per carry or more, Howard had only three. Per our NFL Trends tool, when Howard’s yards per carry is 5.0 or higher, he averages a Plus/Minus of +3.06 and a Consistency Rating of 65%, so hopefully Nagy is able to allow Howard to hit that mark more often with a more creative game plan than what Fox and co. employed.
The head-scratching part is that Howard wasn’t able to do even more last season despite his poor supporting cast, since Chicago’s offensive line was actually a strong point, earning a No. 7 ranking in Pro Football Focus’ run-blocking grades. In fact, they name Charles Leno Jr., Kyle Long and Cody Whitehair as top-five talents at their respective positions. Given all of that, you would expect a little more success running the ball, though a weak passing game is likely to blame. Having a strong O-line already in place will be key for Nagy as he tries to get even more out of Howard’s abilities.
What About Tarik Cohen?
Nagy has a second running back that should see plenty of action as well in Tarik Cohen. Nagy likes to target running backs in the passing game: Hunt received 63 targets last season, 14th among running backs. On the other hand, Howard only garnered 32 targets, hauling in 23 for a paltry 125 yards and no touchdowns. His longest catch was only for 12 yards, compared to Hunt’s 78-yard long gainer, which speaks to Howard’s lack of burst out of the backfield.
Enter Cohen, mid-round 2017 rookie who caught 53 of 71 passes for 353 yards and a touchdown. His long gain on the year was a 70-yard catch, so we know who the lightning bug is in Chicago. This is a different situation than in KC because Hunt could clearly play both roles himself, whereas with the Bears, they have two backs that bring different things to the table. Cohen isn’t going anywhere, and we’re likely to see even more of him in 2018 as Nagy starts to implement some more exotic looks into this offense. If Howard is going to stay on the field more, he’ll need to improve his pass-catching ability and initial burst while in space.
The 2017 Bears did not see the red zone very often, ranking 31st in red-zone scoring attempts per game. But when they got there, Howard had his chance to shine. On just 31 red-zone carries, he racked up 153 yards and eight of his nine touchdowns.
Of course, Howard caught no passes in the red zone and was targeted only twice, while Cohen caught 7-of-10 with a touchdown. That’s all a but different than how Nagy used Hunt, who on 35 red-zone carries, mustered only 99 yards for a dismal 2.8 yards per carry. Since Hunt was unable to get going in the red zone, Nagy opted to use his passing attack at a 61% clip — well above league average.
This all leads suggests we won’t see Howard catching many touchdown passes anytime soon regardless of how much Nagy talks him up as a three-down back, but he should get the brunt of the rushing work inside the 20, as Cohen isn’t exactly a between-the-tackles type of runner.
Howard should continue to see heavy usage in the running game and is best suited for standard leagues, where he could threaten for RB1 status, though our experts have him ranked as a mid-range RB2 in PPR as well.
Pictured above: Jordan Howard
Photo credit: Chuck Cook – USA TODAY Sports