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.