Chicago Bears

NFL Draft: Chicago Bears will have multiple draft options at RB

Potential starters could be available until Round 4 in strong group

Published:
North Carolina State running back Nyheim Hines (7) eludes Arizona State defensive back J'Marcus Rhodes (17) to pick up a first down during the first half of the Sun Bowl NCAA college football game in El Paso, Texas, Friday, Dec. 29, 2017. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)[]

There’s something for everyone in this year’s crop of runners, and then there’s Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, who is everything anyone could want in a running back.

If Barkley falls out of the top five picks, it’s only because teams have gone mad over quarterbacks. But it’s conceivable that Barkley might be the only running back who gets drafted in the first round, continuing an ongoing trend of ball carriers being undervalued in the draft.

Running backs don’t seem to get much first-round respect lately. In the last five drafts, only five runners were selected in the first round.But there is expected to be a run on runners in Round Two, with four or five expected to come off the board. Some interesting options could be available into the early part of the fourth round.

Teams needing RB help will have myriad options, from undersized speed demons to big backs and everything in between.

Bears depth chart

Jordan Howard

Tarik Cohen

Benny Cunningham

Taquan Mizzell

Bears draft need: Negligible-to-moderate.

Bears draft picks

Round 1 (eighth overall)

Round 2 (39th)

Round 4 (105th) and (115th)

Round 5 (145th)

Round 6 (181st)

Round 7 (224th)

Jordan Howard has proven himself as a bell-cow runner, able to pound between the tackles and also get the corner. His 2,435 rushing yards are more than any Bear has ever produced in his first two years. But Howard has not proven himself as the featured back in new coach Matt Nagy’s offense, which prefers more of a two-way back, capable of contributing as a pass catcher. That is not something Howard does well. He caught just 23 passes last season for a disappointing 5.4-yard average per catch.

So there’s been speculation that the Bears may want to move on from Howard as their featured running back, although that hasn’t been confirmed. It will be confirmed if they draft a running back early.

Tarik Cohen provides that dual-purpose threat that Nagy desires, but at 5-foot-6 and 179 pounds, he cannot be the workhorse runner. Cohen caught 53 passes for 353 yards (6.7 yards per catch) as a rookie in 2017 and rushed 87 times for 370 yards (4.3-yard average). If he continues to return punts and kickoffs, as he did last year, it seems 10-12 additional touches per game is the optimum workload for Cohen.

Benny Cunningham is a reliable, veteran third-down back, whose contributions have always been more as a receiver than runner.

2018 salary-cap situation: The Bears’ total expenditure this year for running backs is just $1.961 million, the lowest percentage of salary-cap money in the league, according to spotrac.com. That didn’t include the re-signing of Cunningham, but even with his veteran-discount deal thrown in (roughly $700,000), the Bears will still be at or near the bottom.

As a fifth-round draft pick in 2016, Howard counts just $692,000 against the cap. Cohen, a fourth-rounder in 2017, has a cap number of $714,000.

Day One: It seems that only in Bizarro World would Barkley fall to No. 8, but if he did, how could the Bears pass on him?

Day Two: Most of the second-tier guys will be available at No. 39, but can a team that has more pressing needs at edge and interior offensive line use the pick on a position that is already very strong on paper?

Although there is no consensus on how the RB talent lines up after Barkley, that group includes LSU’s Derrius Guice, Georgia’s Sony Michel, San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny, USC’s Ronald Jones, Georgia’s Nick Chubb, and maybe North Carolina State’s Nyheim Hines and Oregon’s Royce Freeman.

Jones is undersized at 5-11 and 200 pounds, but he survived 275 touches last season and has a better burst than most of the top backs. Though he wasn’t utilized much as a receiver at USC, most scouts consider him a promising receiver.

Penny (5-11, 220) is a bigger back and a much more powerful runner with impressive speed. He ran a 4.48 40 at the combine and has some make-you-miss ability. Although he rushed for 2,248 yards on 289 carries (7.8-yard average) as a senior, Penny has fairly low miles, since he was the main man for just one year in college. Though he caught just 34 passes in his final two seasons, Penny also has the potential to be a solid pass catcher at the next level.

Guice is somewhere in between Jones and Penny. At 5-10 and 212 pounds, he isn’t small, and he has 4.49 speed. He played hurt for much of 2017 but still rushed for 1,251 yards on 237 carries (5.3-yard average). He was way more impressive a year earlier, when he averaged 7.6 yards per carry (1,387 yards on 183 carries). Off his 2016 tape, Guice is a late-first-round talent.

Day Three: One or two top-10 running backs could still be on the board when the Bears’ two fourth-round picks roll around at 105 and 115. Hines is a definite long-range weapon as a runner and receiver with 4.38 speed and good hands. He caught 89 passes at N.C. State and averaged more than 10 yards per catch. But at 5-8 and 197 pounds, he’s not built to be a workhorse.

But the 5-foot-11, 234-pound Freeman is built for durability, and he’s a factor in the passing game with 63 catches over the past three seasons. The concern is that, with 1,026 touches in four years at Oregon, he might not have a lot of tread left on his tires. But it’s hard to ignore his 5,621 career rushing yards.

Third in a series. Next up: inside linebacker. Previously: QBs, WRs/TEs