One of head coach Matt Nagy’s major goals for 2019 is to improve his running game, and to do so he has switched Cody Whitehair from center to guard, James Daniels from guard to center, crossed all his fingers and toes in the hopes that Kyle Long can stay healthy and reclaim his perch as the best guard in the NFC and almost completely rebuilt his running back depth chart.Tarik Cohen will be the Bears only returning running back from 2018.
Jordan Howard, Benny Cunningham and Taquan Mizzell (now a receiver) will be replaced by third-round draft choice David Montgomery, free agent Mike Davis from Seattle, seventh-round pick Kerrith Whyte from Florida Atlantic and Ryan Nall who spent last season on the practice squad.
Who’ll be the Bourbonnais focal point?
Much of the focus should be on Montgomery, considered by many to be the most NFL ready back in the 2019 Draft. He was the fourth running back off the board, behind only Josh Jacobs, Miles Sanders and Darrell Henderson.
Montgomery is 5-foot-10, 222 pounds and was highly productive in college over three seasons rushing 624-2,925 yards, (4.7 avg.) and caught passes for 477 yards on 71 catches, 6.7 and a total of 26 touchdowns.
He also made more tacklers miss in 2018 than any other running back in FBS football.
It is unlikely that Montgomery will be a “better” back than Howard, who has rushed for more yards since entering the NFL than any other backs in the league with the exception of Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley.
But the key will be Montgomery’s 4.7 rushing average, his “make ’em miss” skills and receiving abilitywhich were Howard’s shortcomings but musts in Nagy’s offense.
NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein called Montgomery the “safest back in the 2019 Draft” and ranked him his third choice for Offensive Rookie of the Year this year, behind only Arizona’s Kyler Murray and Oakland’s Josh Jacobs.
Unfortunately with little contact or live reps for Montgomery until the regular season, we will learn little about him in Bourbonnais other than getting an extended look at his pass-catching abilities.
Cohen’s 1,602 combined yards last season were sixth best among running backs in the NFL, but 433 of those yards came on punt returns.
Is Tarik Cohen the ideal chess piece for Matt Nagy?
What makes Cohen perfect for the Bears is his 725 receiving yards were third best among running backs, trailing only Christian McCaffrey and James White.
With 99 rushes for 444 yards (4.5 YPC) last season, Cohen only averaged 6.1 carries per game, but if he is also going to be targeted 5.6 times a game through the airas he was last yearand average 3.1 returns per game, because of his diminutive stature those roughly 15 touches a game may be near his max.
Perhaps he will get another 3-5 rushes a game, but that still makes him the RB2.
What about the sleepers?
The players to watch in Bourbonnais will be Davis, Whyte and Nall.
Objectively, Davis is a veteran journeyman who has demonstrated marginally better receiving skills than Howard but nowhere near the rushing chops. But at 26, he is three years younger than Benny Cunningham and may be an upgrade at the RB3 spot.
While Montgomery is the key to an improved run game, the most interesting player to watch in Bourbonnais will be Whyte.
With a 4.38 40-yard dash, 42-inch vertical leap and 11-foot standing broad jump at his pro day, he would have been the best athlete among running backs at the combine had he been invited.
And he is a football player, having earned Honorable Mention All Conference this past year at Florida Atlantic in spite of being second string to Devin Singletary, whom the Buffalo Bills selected one pick after Montgomery.
Remember one of last season’s All Rookie running backs, Phillip Lindsay, became the first undrafted rookie free agent offensive player to be a Pro Bowler. So rather than trust Whyte was just a seventh-round pick, trust your eyes.
Finally, wideout Cordarrelle Patterson was actually a starting running back for a few weeks for Bill Belichick and the Super Bowl champion Patriots last season, so we should watch closely how much practice time he is getting at the position, as Nagy has already admitted Patterson is his new favorite project.
The Bears RB corps will be among the best in football if …
Montgomery is all Ryan Pace and Nagy think he is, Cohen becomes that much more dangerous with defense’s eyeing Montgomery and Whyte turns out to be this year’s Lindsay.
The wheels will fall off if …
The leap from the Big 12 – where most teams treat defense like a spectator sport – to the NFL is too much for Montgomery to handle, Whyte turns out to be just another pretty face and those two failings allow defenses to focus on taking away Cohen.