First off, the title of this piece might be confusing. To quell any misunderstanding, Khalil Herbert showed enough promise to be considered the 1A and handle the brunt of carries out of the Bears backfield in 2023. However, David Montgomery brought a unique element to Chicago’s running back room, and he will not be an easy man to replace (and it looks exceedingly likely they will have to). While Herbert impressed in his sophomore campaign, they will almost certainly be looking to add another back who can take some of the load off his shoulders.
Fans were holding out hope that the Bears would target a star running back from the loaded group slated to be looking for a new home this offseason. However, the class thinned out considerably after the Cowboys, Raiders, and Giants used the franchise tag designation on their star backs (Tony Pollard, Josh Jacobs, and Saquan Barkley, respectively). While it would have been fun to see any of them in the same backfield as Justin Fields, it is easy to make the case that Chicago would have still been better off targeting the position in the draft rather than breaking the bank and signing them to a second contract.
Signing running backs to a second contract has been as risky of a proposition as playing Russian roulette with a loaded revolver. Countless teams have fallen victim to the trap before, which is probably why so many front offices prefer to use the franchise tag on their star runners rather than commit to them long-term. Father time tends to sneak up on star runners, and the fall-off when he does is usually swift and unrelenting.
The running back position has become significantly devalued in today’s NFL, which is a fact that has been evident in recent drafts. Kenneth Walker and Breece Hall both fell to the second round of last year’s draft despite having elite three-down skill sets coming out of college. Walker ran away with the Offensive Rookie of the Year award, but Hall would have given him a run for his money had he not suffered a torn ACL midway through the year.
Walker and Hall may have been the headliners, but they were not the only rookie backs to make their mark on the league this season, as seventh-round selection Isiah Pacheco came in clutch for the Chiefs down the stretch and led the team in rushing. Fifth-round selection Tyler Allgeier also eclipsed the 1000-yard mark, and third-round selection Dameon Pierce was well on his way to doing the same before getting hurt late in the year. While this class might seem like an anomaly, history shows that teams do not have to pay a premium to land a high-quality starter at the position.
There have only been 12 running backs selected in the first round over the previous decade. While the hit rate on these players is quite high (nine of them have had 1000-yard seasons), history has shown that the second round is the sweet spot for landing an elite runner. Only five of the 15 backs (not counting the league’s best running back, Justin Fields) that eclipsed the mark this season were first-round selections. Five others got picked in the second, and the rest heard their name called on the third day of the draft.
Following up last year’s rookie performances will be a difficult task for the 2023 class, but they are a highly talented group in their own right. The class is headlined by Texas running back Bijan Robinson, who is lauded as one of the most pro-ready prospects in the entire draft and has the potential to become one of the league’s best backs. The Bears would probably have to spend a first-round pick to land his services, but he just might be worth it as a truly elite prospect. With that said, they do have the luxury of having Herbert under contract, so they do not need a three-down workhorse.
Ideally, the Bears will find someone who can hold his own in pass blocking and catch passes out of the backfield, as those were two strengths of Montgomery’s game that will be sorely missed. Robinson’s teammate Roshon Johnson might be someone that interests the Bears in the later rounds, as those are two strengths of his game, and he also possesses a hard-nosed running style in the same vein as Monty. Illinois running back Chase Brown, who had one of the best performances at the combine, is another player that could interest Chicago later in the draft, as his well-rounded game would make him an ideal backfield complement to Herbert.
There is a notion that says drafting a quarterback every year is a smart move. However, I think the belief is more apt for running backs considering how devalued the position has become. The Bears would be wise to follow that rule of thumb this offseason, as several backs can step in and immediately provide a spark to their offense.
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