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Bears 2021 position preview: Running back


The following is the second of nine position previews in advance of training camp.

Led by emerging third-year pro David Montgomery, the Bears boast a deep and talented group of running backs.

Montgomery is determined to pick up in 2021 where he left off last season, when he tied for fifth in the NFL in rushing with a career-high 1,070 yards and eight touchdowns on 247 carries and also caught 54 passes for 438 yards and two TDs.

The 2019 third-round pick from Iowa State was especially effective down the stretch, rushing for 598 yards and seven TDs in the Bears' final six games—more than doubling his output from his first nine contests, when he ran for 472 yards and one TD.

In a four-game span, Montgomery rushed for 434 yards and five TDs on 71 carries, the second most yards in the NFL during that span behind only Titans star Derrick Henry. Montgomery topped 100 yards in three of those four contests, highlighted by a career-high 146 yards on 32 carries in a key Week 15 win in Minnesota.

Although Montgomery was the only NFL running back to generate at least 1,000 yards rushing and 400 yards receiving, he's convinced he could have performed even better in 2020.

"It wasn't enough for me last year, just knowing the untapped potential that I had within myself," he said during the offseason.

Since joining the Bears, Montgomery has worked tirelessly on improving his breakaway speed, something that was evident last Dec. 13 when he raced 80 yards for a touchdown in a win over the Texans. It was the Bears' longest run since Neal Anderson's 80-yard TD Nov. 27, 1988 against the Packers.

Take a look at where David Montgomery's 80-yard touchdown run against the Texans ranks among the longest running plays from scrimmage in Bears history.

Montgomery has continued to focus on that aspect of his game this offseason with Chris Korfist, whom Montgomery called "probably the best speed trainer in the world."

"He's actually teaching me how to run," Montgomery said. "I've not been able to run properly the entirety of my life. Me just really not realizing how I didn't know how to run, he's definitely cleared that image up for me and he's definitely helping me out a lot."

Key offseason acquisition

The Bears bolstered their backfield in March by signing veteran free agent Damien Williams, who opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns.

The last time Williams played in a game, he helped lead the Chiefs to a 31-20 comeback win over the 49ers in Super Bowl LIV, capping the 2019 season. With Kansas City trailing 20-17 in the fourth quarter, he caught a 5-yard touchdown pass to give the Chiefs a 24-20 lead with 2:44 remaining and then scored a second TD on a 38-yard run to clinch the victory with 1:12 to play.

In rushing for 104 yards, Williams became the first player in NFL history to run for at least 100 yards and produce rushing and receiving touchdowns in a Super Bowl.

Williams brings versatility and experience to the Bears, having appeared in 85 NFL games with 13 starts over six seasons with the Dolphins (2014-17) and Chiefs (2018-19). The 5-11, 221-pounder has rushed for 1,231 yards and 12 touchdowns on 294 carries and caught 138 passes for 1,106 yards and 10 TDs.

After his one-year hiatus, Williams wanted to resume his career with the Bears in part because their offense is similar to the Chiefs' scheme.

"Sitting out a year and then coming back, I really didn't want to learn a whole new system," Williams said. "Coming here and kind of having the same system, same plays, it was easy for me. And then meeting the coaches, meeting everybody in the building, it was just easy for me."

Coach Matt Nagy likes the versatility that Williams brings to the Bears.

"He's very well-rounded," Nagy said. "It's just a really good fit for our running back room. I was not with Damien in Kansas City, but the coaches that were there spoke really well of him and said really good things. And so Damien's come in here like a true pro and just digested everything that we're doing. He's a great complement to what we're trying to do."

Cohen rebounding from knee injury

The Bears' running back room will also be buoyed by the return of Tarik Cohen from a torn ACL that sidelined him for the final 13 games last season. The 2017 fourth-round pick from North Carolina A&T sustained the injury in a Week 3 win in Atlanta—only one week after he had signed a three-year contract extension through 2023.

Cohen had a breakout rookie year in 2017. He rushed for 370 yards and two touchdowns on 87 carries, caught 53 passes for 358 yards and one TD, averaged 9.4 yards with one touchdown on 29 punt returns, averaged 22.4 yards on 26 kickoff returns and even threw a touchdown pass. In the process, Cohen became the first NFL rookie to generate a TD on a rush, reception, pass and punt return in a single season since Bears Hall of Famer Gale Sayers in 1965 and the first NFL player to do so since Terry Metcalf in 1975.

In 2018, Cohen again displayed his versatility. He became only the second player in NFL history to gain at least 500 yards via rushing, receiving, punt returns and kickoff returns in his first 25 career games. Cohen lined up all over the field, excelling in different roles and creating matchup nightmares for opposing defenses. He led all NFL running backs with seven catches of at least 25 yards, including a 70-yard touchdown on a screen in a win over the Jets at Soldier Field that was the Bears' longest play from scrimmage in 2018.

Cohen capped the season by being voted to the Pro Bowl and named first-team All-Pro as a punt returner after leading the NFL with 411 punt return yards.

In 2019, Cohen rushed for 213 yards on 64 carries and caught a career-high 79 passes for 456 yards and three TDs.

Talent runs deep in Bears backfield

Other running backs expected to battle for roster spots this summer include former Oregon State teammates Ryan Nall and Artavis Pierce and rookies Khalil Herbert and CJ Marable.

Nall joined the Bears in 2018 as an undrafted free agent. After spending his rookie year on the practice squad, he has appeared in 24 games, all as a reserve, the past two seasons, rushing for eight yards on five carries and catching eight passes for 67 yards and one TD. He has also been a regular contributor on special teams.

Pierce was signed by the Bears as an undrafted free agent last year. He played in five games as a rookie, all as a reserve, rushing for 34 yards and one TD on six carries.

The Bears selected Herbert in the sixth round of this year's draft. He played four seasons at Kansas before transferring to Virginia Tech in 2020. Last year, he ranked fifth in the nation in rushing with 1,182 yards and eight TDs on 154 carries and also had 10 receptions for 179 yards and one TD and averaged 26.9 yards on 16 kickoff returns.

Marable signed with the Bears this year as an undrafted rookie from Coastal Carolina, where he appeared in 36 games the past three seasons, rushing for 2,691 yards and 29 touchdowns on 491 carries, catching 84 passes for 703 yards and 12 TDs and averaging 17.4 yards on 13 kickoff returns. In 2020, he was named first-team All-Sun Belt as both a running back and all-purpose specialist after leading the conference with 1,227 all-purpose yards (887 rushing, 228 receiving and 112 on kickoff returns).