The Bears aren't just hanging onto RB Jordan Howard after he was the subject of offseason trade rumors — they intend to feature him. On all three downs. And in different ways.
Some outlets (not this one) surmised after Matt Nagy's hiring that Howard, the franchise's only player to log back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons to begin his career, might not be a fit in the new offense because he's struggled as a pass catcher.
But Nagy and the Bears have been consistent in saying that they value Howard and won't hide from his struggles catching the football; instead, they'll work hard to correct them. Howard has obviously shattered expectations as a former fifth-round rookie who didn't see the field in his first-ever game. He finished second in the NFL with a rookie franchise record 1,313 rushing yards en route to the Pro Bowl and followed that up with 1,122 yards and nine TDs on 276 carries (4.6) last season despite starring in one of the NFL's more one-dimensional offenses.
But if there's been one knock on him, it's Howard's work in the passing game, where he's among the NFL leaders in drops over the past two seasons, including several at inopportune times. In fairness, Howard was more sure-handed as a sophomore (71.9 percent catch rate, compared to 58 as a rookie), but his opportunities were far fewer (32 targets vs. 50 as a rookie) and his average per catch crashed (from 10.3 in 2016 to 5.4 last season).
So it was notable when Howard, in the Bears' second camp practice on Saturday, made two impressive grabs on consecutive plays in team drills.
"Definitely. It’s important to me, just building my confidence more and more with catching the ball and working my body," Howard said of his nice day as a receiver. He added that "hand placement" has been a point of emphasis and area of improvement in his third offseason.
If it sounds like Howard is preparing for a more voluminous and diverse role, trust your ears. And Nagy's offensive acumen.
"There’s this fašade out there, there’s this notion that he is just a first- and second-down back, and I don’t believe that," said Nagy. "Jordan can play all three downs. We’re gonna do that. We’re gonna use him. And we’re gonna use other guys on first and second down when we need to.
"For us, it’s important for Jordan to know and for everybody on our offense to know that he’s a big part of this. This kid’s had a very successful career so far. We’re crazy as coaches and as offensive coaches if we don’t understand it and if we don’t use that to our advantage."
That great response from Nagy should be music not only to the ears of Howard and all his offensive mates but Bears fans everywhere. Obviously the headline in a fantasy-obsessed world is "Jordan is a three-down back."
But equally important is Nagy's vowing not only to feature his most established offensive player — but to be flexible in doing so.
The previous coaching staff was too rigid to do this. The idea of playing Tarik Cohen on first down and Howard on third, or having them on the field together, can help create the type of conflict and confusion for opposing defenses that endured little of either last season.
"The running game will be great," Howard said. "It’s been great the past few years, and we’re going to keep it rolling. The pass game is going to make the offense go even higher.”
And the Bears and Howard are committed to ensuring he is a key cog in both parts of the operation.