Two years and two weeks ago, the Bears’ running backs made up their worst offensive position group. Now, the running back room might be the best.
Part 2 of a 10-part series previewing the NFL Draft and analyzing the Bears’ needs.
Two years and two weeks ago, the Bears’ running backs made up their worst offensive position group. General manager Ryan Pace had just traded Jordan Howard to the Eagles rather than pay the inflated final year of his rookie deal. That left the newly signed Mike Davis, who’d started only nine games in four years in Seattle and would later earn 11 whole carries in his Bears career, to join Tarik Cohen in the backfield.
Now, the running back room might be the best among Bears offensive groups.
David Montgomery is coming off a breakout second season in which his 1,070 rushing yards trailed only Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, Jonathan Taylor and Aaron Jones. More than half that total — 598 yards — came in Montgomery’s last six regular-season games, when he reaped the dual benefits of a solidified Bears offensive line and inferior opposing defenses.
Cohen is expected to be healthy after having surgery to repair his torn right anterior cruciate ligament in October. In his two healthy seasons under coach Matt Nagy, he’s caught 150 passes.
Damien Williams, signed to a one-year free-agent deal last month, will be the Bears’ third running back. The last time stepped on a football field, Williams became the first player eve to run for at least 100 yards and score both a rushing and receiving touchdown in the Super Bowl.
Williams sat out last season due to coronavirus concerns, in part to help care for his mother with Stage 4 cancer. The Chiefs cut him in March.
Williams will soon learn that it was easier to shine in the Chiefs’ revolutionary offense than that of Bears head coach Matt Nagy, who has struggled for three years to establish a consistent rushing threat. But Williams’ elite speed will give the Bears a different dimension both as a runner and a pass-catcher — and provide new running backs coach Michael Pitre with an every-down rushing option, too, were Montgomery to get hurt. That’s an upgrade over Cordarrelle Patterson, the return ace who never quite fit as an offensive piece. In the one game Montgomery missed due to a concussion last year, Patterson averaged 2 ½ yards on 12 rushes in a loss to the Vikings.
Throw in special teamer Ryan Nall and second-year rusher Artavis Pierce, and the Bears have no reason to pursue a running back in the draft.
This year’s crop isn’t a particularly deep one for running backs, anyway. Alabama’s Najee Harris and Clemson’s Travis Etienne are the only two with a chance of being picked in the first round. They’ve combined for 1,324 career rushes over the past four years with the college game’s two most decorated programs.
The Bears won’t do their shopping at the high end of the draft. In fact, they probably won’t shop for a running back at all.
Grading the Bears’ need: Low. Two years ago, the Bears drafted David Montgomery. In the last nine months, they’ve given Tarik Cohen a three-year contract extension and signed Damien Williams to a one-year deal.
On the roster: David Montgomery, Tarik Cohen, Damien Williams, Artavis Pierce, Ryan Nall
The five best prospects: Clemson’s Travis Etienne, Alabama’s Najee Harris, North Carolina’s Javonte Williams, Memphis’ Kenneth Gainwell and Ohio State’s Trey Sermon.
Keep an eye on: Whether history repeats itself. Last year, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, an undersized lightning bolt from LSU, became the first running back selected when the Chiefs used the last pick of the first round on him. At 5-10, Etienne is three inches taller than Edwards-Helaire, but just as quick. He’d fit nicely in the Buccaneers’ running back room when they make pick No. 32.
Close to home: Michael Pitre, the Bears’ new running backs coach, has a pupil who figures to be taken on Day 3: Oregon State’s Jermar Jefferson. Pitre served in the same role for the last three years with the Beavers, who boast alums Artavis Pierce and Ryan Nall in the Bears’ running backs room. Jefferson was the Pac-12 Freshman Offensive Player of the Year after Pierce got hurt in 2018. Despite playing in only 27 games, he left Corvallis, Oregon, ranked fifth in program history in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and 100-yard-plus performances.