The Chicago Bears agreed to trade Jordan Howard (RB) to the Philadelphia Eagles on Thursday afternoon. The compensation will be a 2020 6th round pick that converts to a 5th rounder if certain conditions are met. Rumors have been floating in Chicago all offseason that the team has been shopping their starting running back, and the Eagles are a natural landing spot with Jay Ajayi (RB) departing as a free agent. The Eagles have shown a tendency to fill holes by trading. This places Howard in a backfield alongside Corey Clement, Wendell Smallwood, Donnel Pumphrey, Josh Adams, and Boston Scott. Darrin Sproles may return as well.
A bit of background
Howard entered the 2018 season as the only Bears back to have consecutive 1,000-yard seasons to begin his career.
Jordan Howard Career Statistics
The offseason leading into 2018 was filled with reports and videos detailing how Howard was working hard to improve his receiving ability to adapt to the new Matt Nagy system. Enthusiasm was high coming out of week 1 when he caught all five of his targets (granted for only 25 yards). But after receiving four targets in week 2, he exceeded two targets only once the remainder of the season and never had more than 33 receiving yards. He still commanded 60% of the snaps and was 6th in the league in carries for the season (250). He finished the season with 935 rushing yards and 9 TDs, ranking as the 30th RB in fantasy points per game. This fell far below expectations and felt even worse as an owner riding the weekly roller coaster.
*Data and chart from ffstatistics.com. Visit the site to explore their data and tools.
Implications for the Bears
The departure of Howard vacates 250 carries from a backfield that showed dynamic flashes in Nagy’s first season as the Bears head coach. Nagy has emphasized the need for versatility from his running backs. This trade confirms their belief that a power back with limited receiving ability will not fit. Tarik Cohen, on the other hand, excelled in the system as a receiver, finishing with 1,169 total yards and 5 TDs on only 170 touches (91 receptions).
Howard’s absence will lead to further opportunities for Cohen, but he will not be integrated as a feature back given his size (5’6”, 181). Mike Davis (RB), signed this offseason from the Seattle Seahawks on two year/$2MM deal, brings similar versatility as a receiver but as a larger back (5’9, 217lbs). He ranked 9th in catch rate (81%) and had an efficient 4.4 true yards per carry (20th) in 2018.
Davis and Cohen provide a unique duo for an offense that emphasizes athleticism and agility. Matt Nagy ran 2-1 personnel sets (2 RBs, 1 TE, 2 WRs) 14% of plays in 2018, tied for 4th most in the league. It seems likely that this will increase to keep both players on the field. This allows for either to be lined up in the slot or be motioned wide before the snap. Linebackers will have a difficult time accounting for these players who have proven to be elusive and able to break off big plays (Cohen was 2nd in breakaway play percentage and Davis 19th in juke rate).
This will benefit Mitchell Trubisky (QB) because it offers additional high percentage targets along the formation and will further open up running lanes for him to rush. This could prove concerning for pass catchers since it is incorporating a new target. If the team increases 2-1 personnel usage, this decreases the opportunity for Taylor Gabriel (WR) and Anthony Miller (WR). I would invest in Miller to earn these snaps, but targets may be an ongoing concern.
A good move by Philly
It is hard to argue that this is just about the best case scenario for Howard as a landing spot given the team’s need (maybe outside of Tampa Bay). The Eagles traded for Jay Ajayi in 2017 to fill a need as their primary back but lost him to a torn ACL early in the 2018 season. The other running backs on the roster shared snaps, and no one capitalized on the opportunity to take the reins. They finished 2018 as the 27th ranked team in rushing DVOA.
It is noteworthy that Doug Pederson, Eagles coach, has shown the tendency to use a committee approach. An Eagles running back only saw more than 50% of the snaps in 6 games in 2018, and three different backs achieved this. Howard is expected to fill Ajayi’s role, but Ajayi only saw 40%, 28%, 53%, and 29% of the snaps in his four games. Howard has operated with 60% of the snap count in Chicago and shown success as an efficient runner, but he may struggle and be TD dependent if he hovers closer to a 40-50% snap share.
Overall I think there are still question marks about whether this is an improvement for Howard. The Eagles will need to return closer to their offense of 2017 to have enough attempts and scoring to support Howard on fewer snaps. They had fewer rushing attempts with a worse offensive line and poorer efficiency. Injuries at the position and quarterback may have contributed, but there were enough red flags in 2018 to instill some doubt.
Eagles 2017 vs. 2018 Offense
A noteworthy difference in schemes is the usage of run from under center. Per Warren Sharp, Chicago ran on 76% (1st) of plays from under center, making them the most predictable team in 2018. Philadelphia ranked 27th. This may be a key difference in Howard’s usage given his above-average rushing from the shotgun (271 carries, 1,419 yards, 9 TDs for 5.2 yards/carry per @staggsnfl).
On 271 carries from shotgun in his career Jordan Howard has gained 1419 yards and 9 TDs for 5.2 yards/carry.
On 508 carries from under center 1953 yards with 15 TDs or 3.8 a clip.
I think the problem was more the predictability he adds to the offenses in terms of run/pass.
— Anthony Staggs (@staggsNFL) March 29, 2019
The Eagles have also shown no issues acquiring cheap players and moving on from them, suggesting Howard may be headed to his 3rd team in as many years next offseason. This was an easy win for the Eagles franchise. They pay little in draft capital to acquire a talented player and may recoup that capital if he departs next season. But I am not sure this will be positive for Howard’s long term dynasty value even if it boosts his performance in 2019. The hype from this move has been overwhelmingly positive and opens up an opportunity to sell this offseason, which I recommend doing.