Sometimes the best moves are the most difficult.
The biggest no-brainer of this 2019 NFL offseason is for the Bears to sign Kareem Hunt. From a strictly football standpoint, Hunt must be their top target. But, of course, it’s about more than strictly football. Those arguments were made by Jeff here and Emily here.
What we learned from the 2019 NFL playoffs is that running the ball is still really important:
- The team that won the rushing battle went 9-2. The two exceptions of course were the Chicago Cody Parkeys losing to the Philadelphia Eagles and the Los Angeles Chargers beating the Baltimore Ravens, despite losing the rushing battle by a single yard.
- Teams that ran for 100 yards went 8-1. The only team that lost was Houston, which gave up 200 to Indianapolis in the Wild Card round.
Television networks and league executives want the NFL to be a passing league, but it’s tried and true that running the ball is important and the Bears just weren’t good enough at it. Despite being 11th in rushing yardage, the Bears struggled to move the ball on the ground consistently throughout the year. They were 27th in yards per carry and all of their rushing totals were inflated by having a quarterback who could routinely run for 15 yards on 3rd-and-10.
Perhaps what’s most troubling about the Bears lack of run production is that, unlike 2017, opponents weren’t trying to stop the run. Jordan Howard faced a stacked box (eight or more defenders) on just 14% of his carries, according to NFL NextGen Stats. That’s the 13th-lowest mark in the league. The player who had a stacked box the least was Tarik Cohen, coming in at 5.05%, well below Wendell Smallwood’s 6.9% rate.
All running games start up front, but those guys are likely to remain largely the same. The hope is that James Daniels can continue to get stronger and that will help the Bears get push up the middle – where they ranked 30th in Football Outsiders metrics. The only possible move the Bears could make is with Kyle Long, but that’s a discussion for another time. For now, let’s just figure on the offensive line staying at least 90% the same.
Maybe it’s on Howard…
Since Matt Nagy was hired, Howard has been in the spotlight and he didn’t produce well enough to fight off any criticism. The idea that Nagy doesn’t like Howard or that he can’t figure out how to make him fit doesn’t really add up when you consider Howard’s snap percentage was about the same as it was under John Fox and Dowell Loggains. Howard just didn’t play well. Whether he’s going to play well in the future is an unknown.
We know Howard can produce because we’ve seen it before. But he never looked like a stud back last year. There were times when he didn’t have space to run, but there were plenty of times when he had a hole and wasn’t able to get through it. He was tripped up far too often.
The draft has been floated as an option to replace Howard, but that isn’t as easy as fans tend to think. Ryan Pace found Howard in the fifth round in 2016, but that came a year after he lost on Jeremy Langford in the fourth. If finding running back gems were so easy, every team would do it. If anything, we’ve learned it’s a crap shoot.
If the Bears had more picks, I’d be all for drafting multiple running backs. But they don’t.
Howard was such a find that only three backs from the 2015, 2016 or 2017 draft classes have out-rushed him: Zeke Elliott, Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon. That tells us it’s more likely than not relying on the draft would leave the Bears with the same backfield situation they had in 2018. Maybe Howard rebounds and runs the ball better in a contract year, but it seems that Nagy would still like a running back with which he can do more.
While teams didn’t stack the box to stop the Bears rushing attack, they didn’t have to fear the passing attack either because Howard wasn’t a threat to turn linebackers inside out for big plays. Nagy wants his running backs to be able to run a more extensive route tree.
One of the best things Nagy did with Hunt was get him down the field for big passing plays simply because linebackers couldn’t keep up with him like they can with Howard. Making teams fear the passing game more will also help the running game. We shouldn’t pretend it’s a coincidence the team’s best offensive performance came in a game in which Howard barely played — at least in the first half.
From strictly a football perspective, the only issue with Hunt is availability. We have no idea how long his suspension will be, but we can assume it’ll be at least six games. Can the Bears survive with Spencer Ware or another veteran for six or eight games? Do they need to keep Howard for that time?
The Bears don’t have a lot of assets to go after players this offseason. Hunt will be cheap and won’t cost them a draft pick. In fact signing him could lead to trading Howard for another pick. It’s a move they must make. Because two things are undeniably true:
The Bears need to run the ball better in 2019.
Kareem Hunt will lead to them running the ball better in 2019.
But, of course, it isn’t really that easy, is it?