It will sport a new look after at least one addition and one subtraction, but the Bears are confident that their retooled backfield will boast depth and diversity in 2019.
The NFC North champions signed running back Mike Davis on the first day of free agency March 13 and traded starter Jordan Howard to the Philadelphia Eagles on Thursday.
Davis is a fifth-year pro who blossomed last season with the Seahawks. Appearing in 15 games with two starts, he established career highs in all categories by rushing for 514 yards and four touchdowns on 112 attempts and catching 34 passes for 214 yards and one TD.
Subbing for injured starter Chris Carson in a Week 4 win over the Cardinals, Davis rushed for 101 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries.
“I thought he had really good vision,” said coach Matt Nagy. “He was a guy that can make you miss between the tackles. He has that in him. We liked that. We thought that would be a good addition to our side of the ball on offense. We’re intrigued to get him in and start learning who he is as a person. From all the research we did on him, we thought it was a great fit.”
The Bears also signed Cordarrelle Patterson in free agency. Patterson has primarily been utilized as a kick returner and receiver in six NFL seasons, but he excelled as a running back at times last year with the Patriots.
The Bears could also bolster the running back position in the draft. They currently have five picks—one in Rounds 3, 4 and 5 and two in Round 7.
“It’s going to be a unique year where we’re picking and it’s going to be best-player-available,” said general manager Ryan Pace. “If it is a running back, then we’ll sort through it. And if you happen to have a lot of depth there, then that can be a good thing.”
The running backs in this year’s draft possess a variety of different traits.
“It's pretty neat looking at the guys at the running back position,” Nagy said. “I think any coach will tell you there's a nice group of backs that they all kind of have their unique style. Some of them, they might not have the home-run speed, but he can run you over. This guy might have average hands, but he's really great between the tackles. They're all a little bit different, so I think it comes down to teams that are looking at running backs, what flavor do you like? What kind of ice cream do you like? And then when you get in the draft, where are they going to be at?”
The one constant in the backfield remains Tarik Cohen, who returns for his third season with the Bears. Last year Cohen ran for 444 yards and three touchdowns on 99 attempts and caught a team-leading 71 passes for 725 yards and five TDs. He was also named first-team All-Pro and voted to the Pro Bowl as a punt returner.
The 2017 fourth-round draft pick from North Carolina A&T 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.
Asked what he learned about Cohen in their first season together, Nagy said: “First of all he loves football, second of all you can fill his plate up because he’s extremely bright and he wants a lot.
“Where I’ve got to pull back a little bit and we need to as a staff is it’s that less-is-more principle and you can’t overload him,” Nagy said. “I felt like as the year went on, him knowing what we do within our offense and us seeing what he does well, we started really matching it up well.
“There are some teams that are going to come in and say, ‘listen, there’s one dude we’re shutting down on this team, it’s 29.’ I was criticized for not getting the ball to him in the playoff game, right? The Eagles, they’re not dummies. They try to do things to take guys away, so they decided they’re going to not let him win the game and they did some things to try to take him away. But then that’s why the philosophy of having other guys on the team that can make plays, then that's what happens."