jordan howard-chicago bears-ryan pace-2018-trade

Bears have a good case to trade Jordan Howard now

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There’s no doubt that Jordan Howard is an outstanding runner, and the Chicago Bears struck gold by picking him in the fifth round of the 2016 NFL Draft. But now could be the perfect time for Ryan Pace to trade the third-year running back.

While the firestorm over Howard removing Bears photos from his Instagram Wednesday turned out to be overblown, a good chunk of fans on social media are vehemently against the thought of even shopping him.

Some folks even threw out terms like “top running back,” “elite player” and “best since Payton” when describing him. That’s a lot of hyperbole being tossed around.

When you look at Howard’s rushing stats, he deserves some props.

  • 2016 Season:
    • 1,313 rushing yards (second in the league)
    • 5.2 yards per carry
    • 6 touchdowns
    • 10 runs of 20+ yards (tied for third in league)
  • 2017 Season:
    • 1,122 rushing yards (sixth in the league)
    • 4.1 yards per carry
    • 9 touchdowns
    • 5 runs of 20+ yards (tied for 17th in the league)

He’s a good player, and his cheap rookie contract makes him very affordable based on exceptional production.

So why trade Howard now? He’s a square peg in a round hole.

It’s easy to call him a “great runner,” but saying he’s a great “running back” seems like a stretch. A running back in today’s NFL is not only responsible for rushing, but he’s also expected to be a part of the passing game. Aside from running routes out the backfield, many offenses now require running backs to go out wide or play in the slot.

Let’s not sugarcoat it. Howard has been HORRIBLE at catching the football no matter where he’s lined up. Bears fans have seen him drop many wide open passes (like this one against the Atlanta Falcons).

New head coach Matt Nagy is a stickler for versatility. His running backs with the Kansas City Chiefs last season were key pieces in the receiving game, especially on third down. Kareem Hunt, who led the NFL in rushing during his rookie season, caught 53 passes for 455 yards and 3 touchdowns. His back-up, the versatile Charcandrick West, had 27 receptions, 150 yards and 2 touchdowns in spot duty.

How did Howard fare in 2017? He finished with a meager 23 receptions, 125 yards and no touchdowns.

Throughout last season, he routinely was subbed out on passing downs in favor of Tarik Cohen or Benny Cunningham. When on the field, defenses regularly stacked the box, knowing he wasn’t a threat to catch the ball. And when he wasn’t on the field? They knew the Bears were most likely going to throw it.

For someone like Nagy, Howard’s deficiencies as a receiving threat might limit how expansive the offense can be. But it’s not just the Bears coach who loves versatile running backs. The whole league pretty much subscribes to this philosophy.

Just take a look at the rest of the NFL’s leading rushers from 2017. Howard was by far the weakest pass-catcher in the group.

Player GP Rec./Tar. Yards TDs
Kareem Hunt 16 53/63 (84%) 455 3
Todd Gurley 15 64/87 (74%) 788 6
Le’Veon Bell 15 85/107 (79%) 655 2
LeSean McCoy 16 59/77 (75%) 448 2
Mark Ingram 16 58/71 (82%) 416 0
JORDAN HOWARD 16 23/32 (72%) 125 0
Melvin Gordan 16 58/83 (70%) 476 4
Leonard Fournette 13 36/48 (75%) 302 1
C.J. Anderson 16 28/40 (70%) 224 1
Ezekiel Elliott 10 53/63 (84%) 455 2

Aside from the top ten, other backs proved to be great receiving options last year. Mark Ingram’s rookie running mate Alvin Kamara had a prolific season catching 81 passes for 826 yards and 5 touchdowns. Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, also a rookie game changer, caught 80 balls for 652 yards and 5 touchdowns.

Dion Lewis was part of a four-man rotation with the Patriots in 2017, but the Titans paid him solely on his versatility. Lewis had 32 receptions, 214 yards and 3 touchdowns despite the limited number of snaps.

Nagy and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich appear to be much more creative than their predecessors. So you should have faith that they can do a better job masking Howard’s limitations. For instance, you might see him paired in the backfield with Cohen or Cunningham, causing opposing defenses to pick their poison.

But instead of trying to force a fit, it might be better to cash in now. If Pace picks up the phone, veteran teams like the Panthers, Ravens and Raiders could be willing to do business. Those three teams are a solid rusher away from contending.

Make no mistake. The Bears are NOT getting a first- or second-round pick for Howard. Le’Veon Bell or Todd Gurley might be the only two backs in the league that could possibly garner a pick that high. But recent trades show that running backs are worth a mid-round pick.

Jay Ajayi, who rushed for 1,200 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2016, was acquired for a fourth-round pick in the middle of last season. Two years ago, the Titans acquired DeMarco Murray by swapping fourth-round picks with the Eagles.

Given today’s market, most GMs would be pleased with a fourth-round draft choice for someone like Howard. Who knows? A team that thinks they’re a solid runner away from contending might be willing to part with a third-rounder. You’d have to imagine that Pace would pull the trigger, especially when he’s trying to fill out the roster with younger pieces.

While Howard is already a cheap and proven commodity, the Bears could easily find a valuable back later in the draft. Howard himself was a fifth-rounder, so there’s little doubt Pace could find another mid- or late-round back with just as much production and even more versatility.

Recent drafts have produced productive backs outside of the first and second rounds, and this year’s draft looks to be deep at running back in later rounds, as well. As mentioned earlier, Kamara and Hunt were difference-making rookies who both thrived as rushers and receivers. Each guy was drafted in the third round last season.

Drafting a rookie workhorse also would provide cap relief down the road. By finding an affordable solution this year, Pace won’t have to worry about overpaying Howard when his rookie deal expires after the 2019 campaign. Essentially, the Bears would be gaining a fresher back with two extra seasons under team control.

Paying running backs nowadays is a fruitless exercise, especially since the nature of the position means a shorter shelf life. And a runner like Howard is a bruiser who can take a beating. So why hand over big guaranteed money to a guy who’s peaking instead of finding a younger, cheaper solution?

If the Bears keep Howard, it won’t be horrible. He’d still be a valuable contributor to a team that has added plenty of pass-catching weapons this offseason.

But as his value decreases with each passing season, right now might be the best opportunity to strike while the iron is hot.

Matt graduated with a Bachelor's degree of journalism from DePaul University in 2011 and currently works in the digital marketing world as a content manager. He's been a Chicago sports fan and almanac since childhood, and he has explainable superstitions leading up to Bears games. Aside from sports, Matt also shares a deep love for family, friends, faith, theater and creative writing.