I like Jordan Howard. He’s a workhorse in an era of dwindling thoroughbreds. He’s a back that can shoulder the load by himself. He has great vision and patience to find and wait for holes to develop. He can throw his offensive teammates on his back and carry the ball 25 times per game to victory.
On the flip side, he’s a one-cut back without breakaway speed. The kind of player that will get to the outside quickly but can be dragged down from behind by a defensive back. And although he’s dedicated much time to improving his hands, he lacks the skills as a playmaking pass catcher.
Which means, in essence, he’s a dying breed in the NFL.
The Bears on Thursday agreed to trade Howard to the Philadelphia Eagles for a 2020 sixth-round draft pick. The pick can become a fifth-rounder, per ESPN’s Adam Schefter, presumably if Howard meets performance incentives.
Did the Bears receive too little for Howard?
The trade was met with mixed reviews from Bears fans, many of whom were disappointed in what the Bears received in the deal. Many thought a sixth-round pick for a player who ranks third in the NFL in rushing since entering the league three years ago was poor value.
And maybe it was. But it was necessary for both the Bears and Howard to move on.
Howard was drafted during the John Fox regime to fit a different kind of offense. Fox was an old-school coach who liked to ground and pound. Feeding the rock to Howard 20-plus times a game (although he averaged 17 attempts) was the perfect offensive strategy in Howard’s first two seasons.
Fast forward two years to when Fox was fired and new head coach Matt Nagy took over. Upon his arrival in town, rumors of the Bears shopping Howard to other teams began almost immediately.
Howard isn’t a great fit for Nagy’s offense
The most simple explanation for why the Bears were so willing to dump one of the league’s best rushers over the past three seasons was because he wasn’t a great fit for Nagy’s scheme. A square peg in a round hole, if you will.
But wait, that doesn’t make sense. Shouldn’t any team find a use for a back as productive as Howard?
In theory, yes. In principle application, no.
When Howard is on the field, defenses do not fear his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Thus, a defensive coordinator doesn’t have to account for that possibility in his play call.
Howard a pawn in Nagy’s game of chess
Nagy needs a running back who is a dangerous weapon out of the backfield. Period. If Nagy’s offensive system were a chess game, and his players were pieces on the board, Howard would be akin to a pawn.
(For the laypeople, a pawn is the most basic, common piece. It can only move in a straight line, one space at a time. It can move diagonal one space when attacking an opponent — there’s that one-cut metaphor!)
Nagy needs less pawns and more bishops, knights and rooks — dynamic pieces that can move all over the field and strike from different directions. When Nagy’s running back is on the field, he wants defenses to constantly guess where that back is going to go and what he’s capable of doing.
Money played a role in what the Bears received
Sure, the Bears could have kept Howard and found a way to maximize his talents. That’s what many Bears fans who are upset about the draft pick compensation they received are clamoring about today.
But even beyond the return on their investment, the Bears were looking for financial relief. The Bears will have young players needing to be financially compensated in the next few offseasons, and Howard is definitely not a priority — as most running backs are not.
Unless you have one of the elites — which, despite his solid production on the ground, Howard is not — it makes no sense for a franchise to pay big bucks for a dispensable and replaceable position.
Howard was a fifth-round draft pick. Tarik Cohen was a fourth. Looking around the league at some of the more “versatile” players with traits that Nagy desires, you’ll see them drafted all over the place.
New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara was a third-round pick. As was Arizona’s David Johnson. New Browns running back Kareem Hunt — with whom Nagy is quite familiar from their time together in Kansas City — was a third-round choice as well.
Oh, and Phillip Lindsay — Pro Bowl rookie running back from the Denver Broncos — was an undrafted free agent.
Best for all parties
You had three winners in the deal, in my mind.
The Eagles were a winner because they badly needed help at the position. They had a carousel of running backs for the past two seasons, and Howard should finally provide them some stability at the position.
Howard was a winner because the Eagles ought to use him more than Nagy had intended to.
And yes, the Bears were winners as well because why continue to jam a square peg into a round hole? It does them no favors to insert a player into the lineup who is not the most ideal fit for the head coach’s offense, simply because that player has been productive for a past regime. If that player comes with liabilities in such a key area of the coach’s offensive scheme, why try to force it?
I can’t envision the Bears entering the season with Tarik Cohen and newly-signed Mike Davis as their primary options out of the backfield. Although Nagy likes to throw the ball, they need a more steady rusher than those two.
The Bears do not have many draft picks (5), but running back is a high priority for them. I would not be surprised — wait, check that. I would be disappointed if the Bears did not use one of those on a running back.