Two years ago, fifth-round rookie Jordan Howard rumbled his way to Bears rookie rushing record books, a Pro Bowl, and more endearingly, the hearts of fans. The trajectory seemed limitless for the Indiana product. However, fast forward to today, and Howard may have seen his last game as a Bear. Doomed by an expiring contract and an impending sense of growing obsolete, Howard trade rumors have been swirling since the trade deadline, with the Bears indeed inquiring about a potential deal at the annual combine.
Despite his proven talent and a defined and vital role in an NFL offense, first-year head coach Matt Nagy made it pretty clear how little Howard fits his scheme last season. Desiring explosive pass-catchers in the backfield, it seemed as if he repurposed Howard’s hard-nosed running style as merely a decoy or a distraction instead of a genuine weapon after the steep drop off in production from him, both in yards and in touches.
Oftentimes, Nagy would opt for some grade school tomfoolery to score in the red zone rather than rev up the reliably smashmouth Howard. He received twenty or more attempts in only three games, highlighting his diminishing role on this team. Even Pro Bowl return specialist Tarik Cohen saw more yards last season than the feature back, despite his stature as a situational player.
As modern college offenses shift away from the classic power backs and steadily adopt the dreaded spread offense concept, introducing blinding speed and receiver-esque pass-catching abilities at runningback, nabbing an effective back even in the later rounds won’t be much of a hurdle. For runningback-needy teams, this sudden emergence proves key. Sadly though, this revolution also effectively negates any value Howard has to the team, as his replacement and probably upgrade will remain on the board come Day Three. Heck, in an ironic twist, Howard himself was a fifth-round pickup.
Nagy has a specific archetype in mind for his offense and Howard, by no fault of his own, cannot fulfill his vision. Throw in the signing of former Seahawks runner Mike Davis, not to mention wisps of Le’Veon Bell hopes, and the franchise seems to be in the midst of tossing Howard by the wayside. However, this proposition may very well erase an essential wrinkle of the offense, leading to a less dynamic offense as a whole.
Howard and Cohen, as polar opposites of running and play style, complemented each other excellently. Though never appearing on a box score, the prospects of Howard banging yards out or a speedy Cohen sweep kept defenses from properly preparing for either. Mixing up Cohen’s role, sometimes even letting him bullrush up the middle in place of Howard, ensured defense’s stayed honest. This opened up plenty of holes up the middle for Howard while simultaneously keeping the edges available for Cohen.
However, this layer will not be worth the seven to ten million Howard would demand, especially with the multitude of arguably finer options in the draft. In today’s league, provided a strong offensive line, runningback may be the easiest position to satisfy and Pro Bowlers can and have been nabbed in undrafted free agency. Unfortunately, Howard simply isn’t special enough to justify a long term deal.
The dream would be a draft day swap to return to the second or third round for Howard. Shipping him off along with a couple of future late rounders for a second or third rounder in this years draft would be a spectacular deal considering Pace’s fantastic track record on Day Two. With holes at safety and edge added atop the required bolstering at guard and edge, a second rounder would be huge to fill some much-needed gaps.
In the event the Bears can’t find a suitable return, allowing him to play out this season and pulling a sign-and-trade or letting another team work out the contract after the upcoming season wouldn’t be contentious. Either way, Bears can’t let him walk without compensation.
While the Bears may see a slight dip statistically, losing Howard could easily be remedied with the current infrastructure of draft position and the aforementioned Davis. The Bears will more than likely grab a runningback in the later rounds, assuming the picks aren’t apart of a Howard deal, and the draft presents some solid options.
Former Heisman candidate Bryce Love may have torn his ACL in his final season at Stanford, but he is a speedster who has the quickness and vision to develop pass-catching abilities, so long as he can return to form. Memphis’s top weapon Darrell Henderson might as well be the most volatile player in this years draft, averaging 8.9(!) yards per carry. Also averaging 15.5 yards per reception, he too brings some pass catching potential.
Don’t forget about Davis either. His career began with San Francisco, but injuries and a prime Carlos Hyde eventually fizzled him out. Then signing with Seattle, he would actually start for six games and put up decent numbers before a breakout Chris Carson and the rookie Rashad Penny dashed his production, leading to his eventual and most recent signing with the Bears. Still only twenty-six, he averaged 4.6 yards per attempt last season and could blossom under a higher workload.
In the end, Howard, like most runningbacks in the league, is marred with the worst attribute in sports-replaceability. While trading him won’t make the Bears better, his production could easily be sustained by nearly any fifth-round rookie or by the fresh face in Davis. Overpaying runningbacks must be avoided and Howard is no different. With plenty of options in the draft and internally, the time to move on from Howard is upon us.