The Chicago Bears completely reinvented their backfield this past offseason and the result is a versatile array of weapons for Matt Nagy.
Matt Nagy wasn’t lacking for playmakers, nor was he short on creative ideas.
The Chicago Bears head coach enjoyed a special first season in the Windy City. He captained a 12 win roster, one that restored fans’ faith in one of the NFL’s most storied franchises. The defense, under current Denver Broncos Broncos head Vic Fangio, resembled the feared units of Super Bowl seasons past. The offense was blossoming with Nagy mentoring the face of the franchise in Mitchell Trubisky.
A 12-win team doesn’t have many weaknesses, so it’s not as if general manager Ryan Pace had a laundry list of major concerns heading into this past offseason. In fact, replacing the departed Fangio as defensive coordinator was the team’s biggest concern. Consequently, some of Pace’s moves have been glossed over for the sake of bigger changes on needier franchises.
But one impressive area that the Bears have completely remade—largely under the radar—has been the rebuilt backfield.
The Bears were a top 10 scoring team in Nagy’s first season and those numbers should only improve as Trubisky grows into a franchise quarterback. Offensive weapons like Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Anthony Miller, and Trey Burton will enjoy greater familiarity in Nagy’s system. Even without any major moves, the Bears offense would already be better in 2019.
But the backfield has been completely remade. The cadre of players now in place give Nagy an even greater assembly of versatile, talented weapons that could actually be the most dynamic backfield in the entire NFL.
Last year, the Bears averaged 4.1 yards/carry in the run game, tied for the fifth-worst mark in the NFL. The Bears were ranked No. 10 in touchdowns and No. 11 in yards, but the unit was largely inefficient, as the Bears were also No. 7 in rushing attempts.
Pace’s goal was immediately clear: to make the Bears’ backfield more effective in Nagy’s offense. That meant importing guys who could create mismatches in a number of ways. Versatility was given more weight. Good runners should also be pass catchers. More top end speed was also needed for some options out of the backfield.
Fast forward to the present and Nagy has everything he could possibly want out of the unit. It’s a group that’s bound to give fits to opponents for the next 16 games and beyond.
He’s been described as a “fire hydrant with legs.”
David Montgomery was heralded as one of the best overall backs available in this year’s draft, and the Bears turned in a card with his name in the third round—their first pick in the draft after losing selections in the Khalil Mack trade.
The move wasn’t a surprise given that Pace had cleared the way for a new workhorse. After averaging less than four yards/carry in 2018, Pace traded last year’s featured back Jordan Howard to the Eagles for a sixth round choice in 2020.
Montgomery gives the Bears what Kareem Hunt provided for the Chiefs before his forced release, a bruising runner who seems impossible to bring down. His penchant for breaking tackles overshadows his surprising hands as a pass catcher, giving the Bears the sort of versatility desired from their primary rusher.
The lone holdover from last season is an underrated dynamo and fantasy football favorite. After making his first Pro Bowl in 2018 (his second NFL season), Cohen should become a recognized offensive star in year three.
Cohen led the NFL in punt returns and punt return yards in 2018, just one of several duties he handles as a versatile—there’s that word again—weapon. He put up 444 rushing yards (4.5 yards/carry) out of the backfield and led the team with 71 catches on 91 targets.
He totaled nearly 1,200 yards from scrimmage, but it wouldn’t surprise anyone if that total eclipsed 1,500 at some point in the near future. His ability to make opponents miss in space is exactly the sort of mismatch envisioned by Pace and Nagy, so Cohen will be featured plenty in 2019 despite the arrival of several new faces.
Mike Davis bounced around the West Coast for a few years with the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks before landing this year in Chicago. Of all of the newest imports, Davis is the most underrated given how well-rounded he is as a running back.
Davis averaged 4.6 yards/carry last year for the Seahawks and can be very effective if tasked with being the primary rusher. But the Bears signed him to a two-year deal worth up to $6 million for his lack of weaknesses. He can catch the ball well enough to be an asset for Trubisky in the passing game, but he’ll also keep him upright with his solid blocking skills.
Cordarelle Patterson needs no introduction at this point as a former first round pick. While he never lived up to the hype of his initial draft slot, the reality is that Patterson has proved himself useful as a multi-talented weapon on both offense and special teams.
Patterson’s presence is largely about security in case anything should happen to anyone already mentioned. There’s no need to push someone to play if fatigued or struggling with energy, because Patterson’s energy and skill set can mimic what Cohen, for example, can do in a couple ways.
Patterson can come out of the backfield, line up wide, set up for returns or do all three. If the Bears wanted more adaptable parts on offense, Pace delivered exactly that with this signing.
Kerrith Whyte, Jr.
The Bears slipped Whyte onto the roster as their seventh round pick out of Florida Atlantic. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the school also shipped running back Devin Singletary to the NFL in the same draft (Buffalo Bills). Despite the fact that he played behind Singletary, Whyte showed enough speed and agility to earn a spot with Chicago.
Whyte isn’t built to be any featured player in this backfield, but he’ll compete for a scatback spot as a player with return experience and excellent top speed. This is exactly the sort of late-round pickup you gift Nagy with, a talented player who needs a specialized role within which he can excel (and create headaches for other teams).
As Bears director of player personnel Josh Lucas said earlier this offseason, “It’s extremely important when you line up on Sunday that you’re not predictable.” The Bears backfield has provided Nagy the ability to be unpredictable each and every week with his array of weapons. It will be fascinating to see how he employs them moving forward.