Hall Of Fame Game: Backs for the Future – Bears Run Game

An earlier post looked at the interesting players in the Hall of Fame Game. Now let’s look at the best positions for each team starting with the Bears. For the Bears I would say the highlight of a disappointing 5-11 season in 2017 was the Bears run game. They have a dynamic running back duo of Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen referred to as Thunder and Lightning. In 2017 the Bears averaged 4.2 yards per rushing attempt (11th), had 13 rushing touchdowns (11th), had a 22% 1st down conversion per attempt (11th) and had 5 rushes of 40+ yards (1st – tie).

The Bears will have some tough decisions to make concerning the rushing backfield come September. Their RB1 and RB2 players are already set. After that it is wide open. How many backs will make the roster? Last season they kept five which included a fullback. But what will new coach Matt Nagy want to do? In his former job as Kansas City Chiefs Offensive Coordinator he got to work with a roster of four backs which included a fullback.  Here is a look at the current roster of backs on the Bears.

Thunder and Lightning – The Starters

Jordan Howard is one of only four backs that had over 1,000 yards rushing in both their rookie and second season over the last 10 years. Jordan’s rookie season in 2016 was his better year. That year he was third in the league in rushing average (5.2), second in rushing yards (1,313 yards) and third in rushing attempts of 20+ yards (10).  Howard has a decisive, one-cut running style. He sees the hole and is deceptively fast through it. His feet keep going after contact and gets those extra 3-4 yards falling forward. Howard will run right thru tackles. He is the thunder of the Bears Lightning and Thunder running back duo.

Lightning is Tarik Cohen. He has got speed. At the combine Cohen was third in the forty (4.42s) among backs and his Pro-Day 3-cone (7.22s) would have been tenth.  Cohen will change direction, reverse back, juke around would be tacklers. Among 27 rookie running backs Cohen had the tenth best average rushing yards (4.3), the fifth longest rush (46 yards) and the fifth best 20+ yard runs (4).

In week three of 2017 the Bears beat the Steelers in overtime. Thunder and Lightning combined for over 200 yards rushing and two touchdowns. Howard, had to leave the field on two separate occasions because of a shoulder injury but he kept playing. Here is a film of their highlights for that game. Due to NFL content when you click it you will have to  click again to select to view it on YouTube. It’s a good film to see their two different running styles. They highlight in the bottom left corner who is carrying.

Being preseason we probably won’t see much Thunder and Lightning as both are a lock to make the team. We should see the players battling for a roster spot – rookie undrafted free agent(UDFA) Ryan Nall, 2nd year UDFA Taquan Mizzell, 6th year veteran Benny Cunningham and 4th year veteran fullback Michael Burton.

The Roster Competition

Ryan Nall was nicknamed the “Wrecking Nall” in college. He shows the ability to break tackles and to fall forward for extra yards. His last year he converted 77% of his third down rushing attempts and 85% when there was only 1-3 yards to go. His combine/Pro-Day results shows athleticism, agility and quickness. In what may be the most important drills for running backs – 3 cone, 20 and 60 yard shuttle – Nall finished in the top six among backs in all three. (Aside: An article I found useful on combine drills: What does combine data mean )

In college Taquan Mizzell achieved a 31% team market share for yards from scrimmage his last two seasons. He is one of only ten current running backs that had a college season with both 500+ rushing and 500+ receiving yards since 2013.  Mizzell had over 1,300 yards from scrimmage each of his last two years in college. He is a fast cutting, shifty runner with good hands.

The other competitor is Benny Cunningham.  This guy can do it all – returns, special team gunner, runner, receiver and blocker. In his five years in the NFL he has had 102 kick returns, a 26.7 yard average, 82 returns of 20+ yards, 9 returns of 40+ yards and only 1 fumble. His career average of 26.7 is second among active players.  He has had long returns of 102, 75 and 61 yards. As a gunner he was tied last year for team lead of 12 special teams tackles including a Bears best 9 solo. As a receiver he caught 20 passes for 240 yards and two touchdowns. He rushed nine times for 29 yards with an average of 3.2 yards. Cunningham was the Bears passing down blocking back. He presents a veteran presence among the young backs and is well liked.

Fullback Michael Burton will also figure into the competition. He is a lunch-pail, hard working, smash-mouth football player. He is an unselfish team-first player. At his combine Mike Mayock called Burton a thug “in a good way”. Burton can block, catch the ball and open up holes. He’s a football player. After his rookie season in 2015 on the Lions, Pro Football Focus graded Burton as the third highest fullback.  Since then his grade dropped slightly in 2016 (79.3) but fell off the cliff for 2017 (40.2). We probably won’t see much of Burton on television coverage as he plays at a thankless position. But keep an eye out for number 46. If one of the backs breaks one open you may catch 46 leading the way.

They all have worked hard to get where they are. I wish them success in the preseason. If not to make the Bears then perhaps another team will take notice. It makes for an interesting story-line to see how it plays out.


The 2018 Hall of Fame Game Players

The Hall of Fame (HOF) Game will be within two weeks. I consider it the unofficial start of the season. We get to finally watch some football. This year the game will be on Thursday August 2nd on NBC at 8:00 PM Eastern Time. The teams are the Baltimore Ravens versus the Chicago Bears. This will be the first time the Ravens have played in the HOF game. The Bears have been in four HOF games and have won each one. Here are some of the Hall Of Fame Game players that I think make the game interesting.

Tom Benson HOF Stadium-July2017
Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium
By BeautifulRiver1964 [CC BY-SA 4.0 ], from Wikimedia Commons

Chicago Bears

Bears head coach, Matt Nagy, will have his first game as a head coach. He was the Chiefs quarterback coach and offensive coordinator prior to being hired as the head coach on January 8, 2018. Nagy had been an offensive coordinator for only two years and had play calling responsibility in a regular season for only five games. The Chiefs did go 4-1 with Nagy play calling. Back when Nagy was a quarterback for the Blue Hens in 2000, assistant Brian Ginn would send in plays for the quarterback. Ginn noticed about 4 or 5 times a game the play run was not the one they sent in. Nagy would claim he messed up the signal. However it turned out the plays Nagy was changing were working. So Ginn started taking credit for changing the call even though he knew it was Matt.

Quarterback Mitch Trubisky will be opening his second year. Trubisky had started the final 12 games of 2017 and the Bears went 4-8 for those games.    Trubisky passed for 2,193 yards, 7 touchdowns and 7 interceptions for a completion percentage of 59.4% and a quarterback rating of 77.5. He had 248 yards rushing with an average of 6 yards and 2 rushing touchdowns. Trubisky had 10 fumbles of which 3 were lost.  Not the best stats but compared to other rookie quarterbacks they were middle of the road. To help the Bears added receiver Anthony Miller in the draft to go with  top receiver Allen Robinson. Trubisky will be implementing a new offense under coach Nagy.

Running back Howard Jordan has had twelve 100+ rushing games in his two year career. Per game that is 38.7% of his games which is third best among active backs over the last three seasons. Howard is the first running back in the history of the Bears franchise to start his career with back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns. Off the field he is a spokesman for the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation in Chicago. An organization dedicated to to educate and work for a cure for a respiratory disease that has a life expectancy of less than five years for those directly affected.  Howard’s father died from the disease when Howard was twelve years old.

Receiver Allen Robinson looks to bounce back from his injury lost 2017 season.  In 2015 over 23% of his receptions went for big plays (25+ yards), he scored a touchdown every 1.14 games, and he had six 100+ yard receiving games. “One of my No. 1 goals is to put on that yellow jacket. That’s where I want to be. I aspire to be a Hall of Fame player.” – Robinson.  Allen Robinson puts in the effort to get there. Prior to the 2017 season Robinson spent part of the off-season training with future Hall of Famer Randy Moss. Robinson never blamed the Jaguars from achieving his goal. That even though they were 11-37 during Robinson’s career. Speaking about who is throwing the ball Robinson says   “It won’t matter at all,” Robinson says. “You want to be in the Hall of Fame? You’ve got to make Hall of Fame plays.”

Hopefully we get to see rookie linebacker Roquan Smith. As of writing this post Smith still had not signed a contract and was holding out of training camp. Smith was the first linebacker picked in the draft with pick 8.  Roquan Smith had 85 solo tackles in 2017 which was a 16.6% solo tackle market share of his team’s solo tackles. It was the highest solo tackle market share in the FBS. Team market share measures the players production against the team production for the specific metric say solo tackles. The larger the market share the better. Per Football Study Hall, offenses only had a 33.6% success rate when tackled by Smith. “Great player. Really fun to watch because he can get to just about any play on the field and he’s only going to get better…” — AFC team personnel director

Tight end Ben Braunecker enters his last year of his 3 year rookie contract.  This season he needs to give the Bears reason to offer him a new contract. Making the 53 man roster is the first step. From his draft profile – “Physical and mean as a blocker. ” His combine numbers were top five across all events for tight ends. Braunecker graduated Harvard with a degree in Molecular and Cellular Biology. Yet in Braunecker’s words  “I would learn my best lessons not in the classroom, but on a football field.” The Harvard team he was on was 36-4 during his career and won three consecutive Ivy League championships “Being a part of this team has shown me that the Harvard athletic experience is much deeper than on-field performance or championship rings. It’s about integrating young, determined individuals of diverse backgrounds and buying into a philosophy, a culture, so that we can put aside what separates us and unite to achieve what we couldn’t alone.” (Written Senior Perspective).

Undrafted free agent running back Ryan Nall could be a hidden gem. Nall is very effective as a short yardage back. On 3rd down with 1-3 yards to go, Nall converted 78% of his career 37 attempts. In 2017 his success rate was 85% on 20 attempts. However Nall also has sneaky speed. Over his last two seasons he had had long runs of 89, 80, 75, 52, 45 and 40 yards. Nall also proved he can pound out the yardage having seven 100+ yard rushing games over two seasons. Nall has good hands and has 454 receiving yards over his last two seasons. According to Football Study Hall the Opportunity Rate for Nall was only 33.9% in 2017. That is percentage of carries in which the offensive line “does its job” and produces at least five yards of rushing for the runner. Nall achieved a 26% market share of his team’s yards from scrimmage at least once in his career.  Another plus is that Nall turned 22 years old on December 27. Nicknamed “Wrecking Nall” he is a force to take down at 6’2″ and 232 pounds. Check out his height and weight as compared to other backs.

Baltimore Ravens

Linebacker Patrick Onwuasor has overcome adversity to be a starting linebacker on the Ravens. In college after his redshirt freshman season he was kicked off the Arizona football team due to an arrest on gun and drug charges. The charges were ultimately dismissed. Onwuasor says the items were not his and attributes the ordeal to falling in with the wrong crowd. He got a second chance at Portland State where as a safety in his senior year he was second on the team in total tackles (85) and solo tackles (49). He led the team with nine interceptions. Patrick went undrafted in 2016 and signed with the Ravens.

In his rookie season Onwuasor played on 52% of the special teams snaps and led the team in special teams tackles with 11. In 2017 he played in 16 games and started 13 games. Onwuasor recorded 67 solo tackles and never had less than three solo tackles in the games he started. Throughout his career he has at various times been described as “I heard he was one of the hardest working, best athletes on the team in his time at Arizona..” – Portland Coach Burton, “He has a nose for the ball… He hunts the ball well” – Ravens Special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg (2016) , and “…But what he does, he does 100 miles per hour, which is what we like.” – Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees (2017).  In two years at Portland Onwuasor got his degree in sociology in spite of working with a learning disability. He volunteered at camp Mt. Hood Kiwanis Camp for people with varying disabilities and formed a bond with one of the campers.

Quarterback Lamar Jackson will make his rookie debut. Michael Vick has said “If I’ve ever seen another guy that looks like me, it’s been Lamar Jackson.”  , Vick is regarded by some as the best dual threat quarterback of all time. Jackson averaged 109 rushing yards per game. He had 50 career rushing touchdowns in just three years. That was third most in the FBS in 2017. Over his last two seasons Jackson had a quarterback rating of over 146 each season. He had 57 passing touchdowns to 19 interceptions. At the Ravens first public training camp practice they ran plays with multiple quarterbacks on the field at the same time. One play quarterback Joe Flacco and Lamar Jackson both touch the ball. On the next play, Jackson and  Robert Griffin III both touched the ball. It will be fun to watch.

Linebacker Alvin Jones could be another hidden gem among undrafted free agents. In his sophomore season Jones had 48 solo tackles which was good for a 12% market share of the team’s solo tackles. In 2017 Jones had 102 total tackles, 4.5 sacks, 19 run stuffs and three forced fumbles. Offenses had only a 29.7% success rate when tackled by Jones in 2017. Jones was a four-year starter who led UTEP in tackles in each of his final three seasons. According to draftanalyst.com Jones is an active linebacker who is constantly around the ball and makes positive plays.

Free safety DeShon Elliot was an unanimous All-American in 2017. He had fifty solo tackles, six interceptions, nine passes defended, 1.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. Elliot’s sum of his market share for all five metrics (solo tackles, interceptions, passes defended, sacks and TFL) was ranked sixth among 2017 defensive players. Elliott is a hard-hitter and a sure tackler. He had only five missed tackles in 2017on 815 snaps. Scouts say he loves the game including the work that goes into it.

Cornerback Darious Williams is another potential undrafted free agent gem. Williams remained at UAB when the football program was shutdown for financial reasons following the 2014 season. He spent two years training and when the program started again in 2017 he was ready. In 2017 Williams had thirty-eight solo tackles, five interceptions, fifteen passes broken up, and four tackles for loss. He was credited with 5 run stuffs. His 20 passes defended was ranked fifth in the FBS.  His market share data sum for solo tackles, interceptions and passes defended ranks fourth among FBS defensive players. Darious Pro-Day results were showed his athleticism and speed. His numbers with equivalent combine rank are a 4.44 forty (9th), a 6.85 three-cone (10th) and a 39 inch vertical (2nd). “When you got all those things – smart, good person, good player, really intelligent player. He’s got all the attributes that they’re looking for.” – UAB head coach Bill Clark.

Every player has their story. These are just some that stood out to me.