BOURBONNAIS — After finishing the 2018 season a disappointing 27th in the NFL in average gain per carry and failing to mount a consistent rushing attack all season long, the Bears spent this past offseason almost totally overhauling their running back room.Of the five backs that finished the 2018 season on the roster, only Tarik Cohen is still in the backfield.
Jordan Howard was traded, Benny Cunningham and FB Michael Burton were allowed to leave via free agency and Taquan Mizzell is now trying to make the team as a wideout.
In their places are free agent Mike Davis, third-round draft choice David Montgomery, seventh-rounder Kerrith Whyte and free agent receiver and return specialist Cordarrelle Patterson, who will take snaps in the backfield as well.
But what if the answer to the Bears rushing dilemma has been here all along hiding in plain sight?
The best running back on the Bears during the 2018 exhibition season was undrafted rookie free agent, Oregon State product Ryan Nall.
Nall led the entire NFC with 223 rushing yards on 32 carries (7.0 YPC), in addition to four catches for 25 yards.
In spite of his outstanding rookie camp, Nall got the axe in the final cut-down to 53 last year.
But he did spend the 2018 season on the Bears practice squad, and he’s back for another run at the final 53.
I asked him Saturday how it felt a year ago to have such a big camp and still not make the team.
“It was a good learning experience to be able to be fortunate enough to come back to the team on [the] practice squad and learn the playbook in the offseason and keep learning it, not only my position but the other positions as well.
“The concepts, [and] it was good for me so come this year I feel more prepared and more comfortable in the offense and to be able to showcase my skills.”
At 6-2, 232 pounds with a 4.58 40-yard dash time, Nall wouldn’t appear to be the type of back Ryan Pace has been shopping for to fit Matt Nagy’s scheme, but Nall thinks it suits him well.
“I think it fits my style pretty well.
“I feel like I’m very versatile. I’m able to split out, run routes as well as you know running up the middle and be the bulldozer, third down, third-and-one, go-get-it-type back.
“Coach Nagy’s offense allows me to be both, being able to play my game, or you know get between the tackles and make people miss as well as be split out and run some routes and catch the ball as well.
“I think that I can be able to be out there and help the team that way.”
Nall isn’t worried about the new competition.
“I don’t think it really matters,” he said. “Benny and Jordan, they were both great backs and fortunately they’re on their own paths now.
“For me, I was fortunate enough to be able to stay here and they wanted me to come back and you know I’m just going to take advantage of the opportunity.”
While Nall is unlikely to take carries away from Montgomery or Cohen, it’s hard to say how far behind the other backs he really is.
One edge he could have is with Burton gone, the Bears don’t have a fullback in camp right now. Should they carry five backs again …
“We don’t necessarily have a true fullback in this offense, and sometimes the tight end may have to come in and play that position, and sometimes I may have to fill that role at times too.
“That’s why in Coach Nagy’s offense, everybody has to know every position.
“If a man does go down, I should be able to step up and kind of fill that role to the best of my ability.”
Clearly, Nall isn’t what Nagy and Pace would create in a lab to fit the head coach’s offense, but it seems like every time you turn around he’s doing something to catch your eye.
The young man from Oregon remains a longshot at best to be a Bear, but don’t tell him that because he doesn’t appear to be listening.