If there is one source that causes constant and agonizing indecision in dynasty and yearly fantasy, it is uncertain backfields. Today, I’m going to key you in on how I think the Chicago backfield will play out in 2019.
We will do this by looking at the roles coach Matt Nagy has proven to employ through his time as an offensive coordinator and now head coach. We’ll also look at how the various parts of the backfield will coexist.
The Kareem Hunt role (Circa 2017, Kansas City Chiefs) –
Nobody currently on the Bears roster, or projected to be on the roster when the NFL season kicks off at Soldier Field is a fit for what Hunt can do athletically or production wise. He is Matt Nagy’s dream. It’s why Nagy wasn’t shy from commenting on the fact that he talked with Hunt in the offseason. The Bears were likely in on bringing in Hunt, but it got nixed along the way at some point.
Nagy likes being able to have a running back who can cause the defense to not key on either run or pass. Or anything, for that matter. In 2017, Kareem Hunt had a monster fantasy and real-life year. He played in 64.75% of offensive snaps, per Pro Football Reference, which was third for skill position players (behind only Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill).
With that volume, he racked up 1,327 yards rushing on 272 carries. He also was dominant as a receiver, hauling in 53 receptions on 63 targets (84% catch rate) for 455 receiving yards. Per airyards.com he had 125 air yards, with an Average Depth of Target (aDOT) of two yards, 12% team target share, and 3% team air yards share. He totaled 325 touches, with 5.48 yard per touch. Heavy usage for sure, but for good reason.
Fast forward to 2018 when Nagy was hired as head coach for the Chicago Bears. Absent of a guy who he felt could play the Kareem Hunt role he looked to fill it in the aggregate with Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen.
The Jordan Howard role – Used as the primary early-down runner, and between the tackles. He saw usage in some short yardage situations (some of this was taken away by Nagy’s Willy Wonka gadget plays). He has also shown to be a good pass blocker. However, he is a worrisome pass catcher unless the pass in question is a low degree of difficulty.
He played on 58.05% of the team’s offensive snaps per PFR (almost 10% less than Hunt), he ran for 935 yards on 250 carries in that time (3.7 YPC). He was his usual self in the passing game, hauling in 20 catches on 26 targets for 145 yards. However, he did this on only 24 air yards, 0.9-yard aDOT, 5% target share, 1% air yard share per airyards.com. Defenses were not scared of him catching passes. He totaled 270 touches. A decent workload for sure, but only four yards per touch, compared to Hunt’s 5.48. Hunt performed better than Howard in almost every conceivable facet of the game. (Probably why Ryan Pace just traded Howard away to the Eagles, as I’m sure to the pleasure of Matt Nagy).
The Tarik Cohen role – Used primarily on outside runs, draws, jet sweeps, screens, the occasional inside run that he all but avoids. A great example here from @robertkschmitz’s tweet thread. He bounces this inside run outside and gets a big gain, but sometimes this works to his detriment.
But any who know Cohen know that he's not just a runner, he's a capable receiver too. Cohen's ability to play both out of the backfield and off LOS creates big plays like the one shown here — the defense doesn't expect him to run a sideline go route, and he makes them pay. pic.twitter.com/3JCfeTsF5I
— Robert Schmitz (@robertkschmitz) April 12, 2019
He was a surprising pass blocker for his size, when on rare occasions he was called upon to do so. Watch him LIGHT UP this Rams defender, thanks again to @robertkschmitz. He also had a decent amount of work at wide receiver. When deployed as a wide receiver, he is a fairly dangerous matchup weapon. Check him out as he TOASTS this poor safety.
He played on 46.05% of the team’s offensive snaps per PFR(almost 19% less than Hunt. It’s worth noting that Howard and Cohen totaled more offensive snaps than the Bears had total last year, meaning at times they were on the field together.
In the time he was on the field, he racked up 444 yards on 99 carries. He had a dominant year when used as a pass catcher, hauling in 71 catches on 91 targets (78% catch rate) for 725 yards. Per airyards.com, he had an aDOT of 3.7 yards. Those 3.7 yards was the highest mark of any running back who had more than 19 catches on the season. He also had 316 total air yards (second to only James White), 17% team target share (eighth-ranked among running backs), and a 7% air yard share (second only to James White again).
Given the added context, it could be argued he is in the conversation for best receiving running back in the league, certainly better than Hunt and Howard. He had 170 total touches and a crazy 6.87 yards per touch. He had more yards from scrimmage than Howard on 100 fewer touches. Tarik Cohen is a very exciting and efficient player, but he is not without weaknesses.
The problem in Matt Nagy’s eyes with the backfield he utilized in 2018? When you compare the two players, there is almost nothing that they share as a skill. This means when defenses game plan for the Bears, they know what’s coming depending on which of them is on the field. Nagy did a little bit to head this off by at times putting them both in the backfield or using Cohen as a receiver when able to manufacture a good matchup for him.
It was clear from the outset that Nagy didn’t envision Howard as a fit for his offense, as there were rumors that Chicago was shopping him in trades before the 2018 NFL Draft. I think it’s safe to say Nagy enjoys having a player like Cohen on the team but recognizes he has deficiencies.
The Leading Actors:
Mike Davis (RB – CHI) – He would also give a more of a balanced run/pass look than Cohen, because of him being more willing to run between the tackles and the body type for short yardage situations. Good pass blocker and could steal some third-down work from Cohen, for that reason, and because of his improvement on what Howard can offer as a receiver. In his brief opportunity in Seattle, Nagy and Pace saw on film that Davis would give them a better receiver than Howard. Courtesy of the same @robertkschmitz Twitter thread we can see Davis showcasing exactly what I mean when I say a balanced run/pass look.
But what separates Mike Davis from your run-of-the-mill downhill back are his surprisingly smooth hands — check out how fluidly he catches the ball here, wasting no time between the catch itself and the run afterward. Also note his spin move, he uses it quite a bit. pic.twitter.com/tHk3KWM5lD
— Robert Schmitz (@robertkschmitz) April 12, 2019
Per spotrac, Davis signed a 2-year contract worth six million dollars. The way the deal is structured, the Bears could conceivably get out of it after 2019 for a three million dollar cap savings. Not a situation where you’d say, “follow the money” to determine if he will receive volume.
2019 Outlook: RB3/4/Bye week replacement/flex play.
Tarik Cohen (RB – CHI) – His outlook is pretty much unchanged from 2018. It’s very hard to project an increased workload when you figure that Davis/Cordarrelle Patterson/potential incoming rookie could duplicate on his skill set. He will continue to be a matchup weapon, and Nagy will find creative ways to use him. No reason to think he won’t see a high target volume, comparable to or higher than last season. He might see a little less rushing volume due to competition from Davis or a rookie. And he has two years remaining on his rookie deal before he becomes a free agent in 2021.
To my knowledge, the Bears have not commented on the possibility to extend him, so safe to only assume he will have this role for another year beyond 2019 until further notice.
2019 Outlook: RB2/Solid flex play weekly with fringe RB1/2 upside. He is a better player in best ball and PPR formats.
*Insert rookie here*– I think this person will likely compete with Mike Davis for the “Howard role” or absolute BEST case scenario is Nagy falls in love with him and carves out another Kareem Hunt role. But with their first pick not being until #87 in the third round, and plenty of other areas to shore up in the draft, I can’t imagine you get somebody that can warrant that type of role. I could see this player eating into Cohen’s workload as well if they are a skilled pass catcher.
2019 Outlook: Really depends on who they pick, if they pick, and where they pick him. They’ve been linked to at least 14 running backs in the pre-draft process.
Some backs the Bears have had in for official private workouts:
Miles Sanders – Is he available at pick #87 or beyond? Some mocks have him there for the Bears at that pick; others have him going earlier. Not outside the realm of possible outcomes for sure. One of the few running backs at the combine to have good athletic measurables. The former 5-star recruit who sat behind Barkley. I would assume him to be their top choice at the position if all are available, due to his versatility as a runner and receiver. If that happens, he would have the inside track to a Howard+ role, or at least the dominant portion of a split with Davis. Davis stock way down, Cohen potentially small downgrade, but likely unchanged.
Trayveon Williams – Should be available at #87 and beyond. Some scouting reports have him as more of a receiver than a runner, but from my brief look at his tape, he seems to be a better fit as a runner than Cohen, but not as stout as Davis. This pick would likely hurt Cohen and Davis, and make all three options not very appealing on a week to week basis. If he can beat out Davis for the Howard role, probably a similar outlook to Sanders.
Devin Singletary – Some mocks have him taken before #87, some rounds 4-5. I’ve seen him described as a “volume runner in a change of pace back body.” This doesn’t seem like a good fit for me. Was not used much as a receiver in college so it’s hard to project what he will be like in the NFL in that category. If this pick is made, I would assume a split between Davis and Singletary, and I might even hedge toward Davis. Cohen unchanged, Davis stock slightly down.
Ryquell Armstead – Should be available #87 and beyond. Speed back (ran 4.45 at the combine) with little tape of him as a receiver. This pick would be similar to the Devin Singletary pick, maybe a bit more upside than Singletary in the competition with Davis due to his speed. Cohen unchanged, Davis stock slightly down.
Mike Weber – Should be available #87 and beyond. Speed back (ran 4.47 at the combine). Showed ability on tape as a receiver as a safety valve when the quarterback was pressured. Touted as a patient runner with good skill in inside zone. If this pick is made, I would assume it to go the way Singletary/Armstead would go. Cohen unchanged, Davis stock slightly down.
A quick summary of outcomes – If you own Cohen, you’re hoping for any running back except Trayveon Williams (outside of no running back being drafted). His role probably won’t change that much regardless. If you own Davis, you better pray every night the Bears don’t pick a running back in the draft, as almost anyone will downgrade his production likelihoods.
Source – https://www.playerprofiler.com/
Cordarrelle Patterson (RB/WR) – Primarily a punt and kick returner is what I’m projecting which also takes a tiny bit away from Cohen in that regard if you get punt return yards points. Nagy will have a package of plays for him on offense. The package will likely be limited to gadget type plays, the occasional run (nice little run here), jet sweeps, wide receiver work in four and five wide sets. Signed a two year, 10 million dollar contract, with basically only 2019 guaranteed. The Bears could save over five million dollars if they cut him in 2020.
2019 Outlook- Not start worthy under almost any circumstances, unless you are in a weird league that starts returners, then he’s a solid top-five option :).
Ryan Nall (RB) – Likely practice squad/preseason body again. Could see some time if guys get injured. I wouldn’t discount the possibility of him playing an h-back type of role, based on his size (6’2” 232) and how he played in college.
2019 Outlook: Nice sleeper in deep leagues
Taquan Mizzell (RB) – Honestly not sure what the guy does well, or why he ever got work last season. Mizzell has only 2019 remaining on his contract, for 645K.
The players to target from the Chicago backfield with all above information taken into account:
- Tarik Cohen if not an overpay. Not many scenarios he doesn’t see a similar role to 2018.
- Mike Davis if I can find him on waiver wires. This is not likely to happen unless the Bears draft a running back.
- Miles Sanders if drafted with pick #87. Davis does not scare me in this scenario.
I would advise you to stay away from everyone else in this backfield under the scenarios I have laid out. The safest play here is to buy the cheapest option and just cross your fingers that they find the volume to produce.
Thank you all for taking the time to read my work. Hit me up on Twitter @DFF_Mike2 and let’s talk about why I’m probably wrong!