Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for the running backs

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for the running backs

With training camp starting next week, CSN Chicago’s Chris Boden and JJ Stankevitz are looking at three burning questions for each Bears position group heading to Bourbonnais. Today’s group: the running backs.

1. Can Jordan Howard get to the Starting Gate healthy?

By now, there’s no question the franchise’s all-time leading rookie rusher can do it. And after the fifth-rounder answered some durability questions last season, the last thing the Bears need is Howard to be banged-up or unavailable heading into a brutal first month of the season. If the Bears are to compete against the likes of the Falcons, Buccaneers, Steelers and Packers, they’ll need their ball-control game to be effective behind the league’s second-leading rusher last season. The humble star spent the offseason trying to get even better, from eye surgery, to finding ways to get through the second level and outrun defenders.

“Just improving on the little things, my conditioning, my weight, catching passes,” Howard said at last month’s minicamp. “And looking for ways to finish runs better. I feel like I’m in much better shape than I was at this time last year, a little more toned-up.”

2. Spark from Sparty

Jeremy Langford entered last season as the starter following an impressive rookie season of his own, looking like the heir to Matt Forte as he split time with the veteran. But after 28 carries the first two games, the Michigan State product injured an ankle in Week 3 at Dallas after gaining 31 yards on only three carries. He was never the same once he came back, totaling just 31 carries for 84 yards. He remained out of team work during minicamp last month, working out individually on the side in an effort to be full-go for Bourbonnais. Howard took the ball and ran with his opportunity once Langford went down. But it’s not reasonable for him to carry the entire workload once the season begins, unless Dowell Loggains is asking for trouble. Langford returning to his rookie form will help.

3. The 3 C’s

That’s Tarik Cohen, Benny Cunningham and Ka'Deem Carey. Carey heads into his fourth season, having bought into special teams roles and being fearless charging into opposing defenders, even pancaking a few in his time here. But unless he finds a way to make himself a core performer on Teams, or if Howard, Langford, Cohen, or Cunningham suffers an injury, one doubts the Bears would enter the season with five running backs, especially if they decide to keep a fullback around. Cohen provides his unique skillset as the “human joystick” third down threat and potential as a returner. The latter is what Cunningham’s built his career upon, and has a similar build as Carey.

“I think it’ll play a key role and benefit me,” the 5-foot-6, 179-pound Cohen said of his stature and waterbug-like moves being a part of the offense. “The linemen are going to be bigger and it’ll be really hard for defenders to see behind my linemen. I didn’t necessarily want to be bigger (growing up), but I wanted to beat the bigger kids.”

Truth, Trubisky and (what should be) the Bears Way

Truth, Trubisky and (what should be) the Bears Way

Bears general manager Ryan Pace tried to do the rebuild-on-the-fly. But injuries, and some misses among his hits in drafting and free agency, proved during last season this was going to take a little longer. And based on health, cohesiveness, and their first half schedule, who knows if 2017 will look much better, won-loss-wise, when all is said and done?

Even though the collective bargaining agreement requires players to stay away from team-supervised workouts, Bears rookies have been working with the organization to remain visible through the first two weeks of this break before training camp. While veterans scatter to vacations and their off-season homes, the rookies are trying to settle into their new professional homes while they can. They’ve been seen out in the community, led by Mitch Trubisky, visiting hospitals and speaking at youth camps. And let’s face it, most optimism about the franchise’s future must come from the hoped-for cornerstones of this rebuild, with those ingredients needing to come together and show progress this season. Not the only factors, but key ones in resuscitating the organization. And the more we see and hear them, the better, provided they’re willing participants.

While there are Leonard Floyds and Eddie Goldmans and Cody Whitehairs and Cam Merediths that should be part of that foundation, three potential keys who, ideally, could be main offensive stars when this team gets good again, led a 7-on-7 camp Friday in Wheaton. Trubisky was joined by “veterans” Jordan Howard and Kevin White. Two of those three have yet to prove much, if anything, in NFL game action. But unless you’ve already made your minds up negatively on Trubisky and White, feel-good interaction with kids, and fans in general, goes a long way in rooting for them.

Trubisky has embraced his activity. The second overall pick is probably aware of the doubters, and hopefully understands the knuckeheads who booed him when he was introduced at a Bulls game were more likely booing the overall drought and frustration. But he’s said all the right things, has bought into what the investment in him means, and understands his short-term role behind Mike Glennon without planning on giving a competitive inch. So when he answered a question about whether the Bears would make the playoffs during Friday’s Q-and-A with the campers, he said he thought they would. But White, who knows a thing or two about how things may be interpreted, got in the quarterback’s ear to make sure they understood it was a feeling, not a public guarantee.

“Great message,” White said with a smile as reporters laughed, knowing where he was going. “He’s just gotta be clear on some things. People can take it the wrong way and run with it and make it seem like he’s being cocky. We all think that, of course. But we’ve gotta put some pieces together and do what we have to do to get there. I think Mitch cleared it up that he wasn’t saying 'for sure we’re going to the playoffs,' but just said that’s what we think. And that’s what we all think.”

White also shared some other knowledge about the trials and tribulations of Bears’ fans expectations with a top 10 draft pick.

“Just with the experience and the pressure, the things people expect, try to teach him how to handle that a little bit.”

Howard, who was on stage at Soldier Field Saturday night as part of the Warriors Games opening ceremony, has noticed Trubisky’s commitment.

“You can tell he wants to be great” the team’s all-time rookie rushing leader said Friday. “He puts the time in, and the effort to be a great quarterback in this league, because in order to be great, you’ve go to put the time in and have a good work ethic.”

That, of course, is no guarantee for greatness, just as Trubisky’s words were a feeling, not a guarantee. His personality could change down the road as success and failures come. But Pace said that’s not likely, based on his background homework and personal interaction. At this very early stage, Trubisky is embracing all he can to represent his employer, and maybe even plant some seeds of hope along the way in the community.

“I guess that comes with the position, part of playing quarterback, part of being drafted second overall,” Trubisky said between answering questions from campers, then getting out on the field with them.

“I realize that my voice holds some weight now. I just gotta be careful with what I say, but also realize I want to be a positive influence in the community for these kids out here and the Bears organization. The things I do, I want them to reflect on my own beliefs and how I want to make a positive impact on the people around me.”

Jordan Howard wants to lead Bears... and lead the league

Jordan Howard wants to lead Bears... and lead the league

So Jordan Howard finished second in the NFL in rushing in his rookie season, despite just a dozen carries in the first three games. The fifth-round pick joined the man who beat him out for the rushing title, Ezekiel Elliott, as one of just five rookies in history to average five or more yards per carry on over 250 carries. And he set the Bears' rookie rushing record with his 1,313 yards while becoming just the fourth in franchise history to rush for that many yards in a season.

Sounds pretty hard to top, like we might be set up for the dreaded sophomore slump.

But...

"Things are a lot different this year because I know what to expect," Howard said during the team's minicamp two weeks ago. "I know all the plays and things like that. I’m not out there thinking, so I can just play free and fast.

"I definitely feel like a veteran 'cause I know what to expect and can help the young guys on the plays that they're not understanding. I’m just more comfortable and want to be a leader."

One of the other things we learned about Howard last year is he's low-key, a man of few words. So the Indiana product by way of UAB will make his points verbally when needed, but his actions will speak louder.

"He was a rookie a year ago and didn't even go in trying to be a leader, telling a five-year guy what was up," said head coach John Fox. "I think with time, and obviously with production like he had, I think it's a role he can fall in to. We're in a performance-based business and even in that locker room, what they do on Sundays gives them some credibility."

One of the concerns about Howard coming out of college was durability, but he answered the bell once he became the starter in week four against Detroit. And he probably wasn't used nearly as much as he should have. The good news about that is he was subject to less wear and tear, averaging just 18 carries per game from that Lions game on.

But besides taking more of a leadership role, Howard wanted to work on his speed without sacrificing the strong base that, paired with keen vision and work by the offensive line, allowed him to hit holes quickly and charge toward the second level of opposing defenses.

"Just improving on the little things – my conditioning, my weight, catching passes. And looking for ways to finish runs better," says Howard. "I feel like I’m in much better shape than I was at this time last year, a little more toned-up."

"It's just training," said Fox. "When you get to that it's more like track speed than football speed and I think he proved pretty worthy of that a year ago as a rookie. Y'know we all can improve on things, and that's the expectation. He's trained hard.

"This time of year last year he wasn’t even practicing," Fox remembered. "I like where we are, we’ve brought in more competition, and he’s better for it. He’s kind of gotten used to an NFL season, he’s come back ready to roll, but he still has work to do before we get to training camp."  

Oh, and the 22-year-old has a couple of other goals he didn't mind sharing, besides being a leader and getting a little faster.

"First off, make the playoffs. Be the leading rusher, and just help the team in any way I can and stay consistent."