Running back, one of the foundation pillars of Chicago Bears football, was in some turmoil this offseason. First was the exit of Matt Forte. Then was the failed pursuit of Denver’s C.J. Anderson, a statement that while the Bears were pleased with the futures of Ka’Deem Carey and Jeremy Langford, those two were not necessarily the future of the offense, particularly in situations calling for raw power.
Accordingly, the Bears went big in the fifth round, using the 150th pick of the draft on Indiana running back Jordan Howard, a 230-pound force who averaged more than 123 yards from scrimmage in his combined 32 collegiate games at UAB and Indiana.
At 230 pounds, Howard eschews subtle.
“I feel like I’m a grinder,” Howard said. “I can get those tough yards and in the NFL. You don’t really see those long, explosive runs like you see in college. There are a few, but not many, so I feel my game suits the NFL more than it does college.”
It also appears to suit the Bears, who have struggled too often over the past several years in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
Howard, however, may need to tweak his game just a bit.
Big running backs like Earl Campbell, Larry Csonka and Christian Okoye have had success spikes but not always sustained at those peak levels. The reason: Big backs deliver big hits but they also take more of them, and hits take their toll. John Riggins (240 pounds) extended his Hall of Fame career using speed that away from tacklers rather than taking all of them on.
Howard has a smash-mouth mindset but NFL tacklers will be substantial tiers above what he ran into at Indiana. And he missed time last year with knee and ankle injuries that limited him to nine games, in addition to averaging 216 carries per season for his three college years.
Still, “I feel like my size will benefit me well because a lot of time guys they won’t want to tackle me a lot of times, especially after long games when we’ve just been pounding,” Howard said. “They then start diving and then I can avoid them. I think it works very well for me.”
(Hard to see Aaron Donald, Luke Kuechly, Julius Peppers and J.J. Watt “diving,” but you never know.)
Howard will not be doing a lot of diving himself. He carries a decided chip on his shoulder after getting just one scholarship offer (UAB) coming out of high school, then having UAB drop football while he was there.
"Yeah definitely some pride because coming out of high school I had one offer to play at UAB in Conference USA, so I definitely wanted to prove I could play on a bigger stage," he said. "And I was doing it for UAB because they shut the program down. I wore my heart on my sleeve for them."
In the second round of the 2003 draft the Bears took a flyer on a tall cornerback out of a smaller school. Now they have gone a similar route, hoping to land another Charles Tillman.
At the very least they secured a tall cornerback from a smaller school who WANTS to be another Charles Tillman.
Deiondre’ Hall, 6-2, 190 pounds, became a Bear with the team’s third pick in the fourth round of the 2016 draft. Hall comes out of Northern Iowa with 13 career interceptions, six returned for touchdowns, with another 28 passes broken up.
In the Tillman tradition he also finished with four forced fumbles, three of those his senior season.
His role model, “for cornerback, me personally, I’ve always loved him, is Charles Tillman,” Hall said. “Just being a ballhawk and getting that ball. That’s something that’s been huge to me throughout my time at Northern Iowa… .
“I’ve always kind of tried to model my game after him. Like I said, just being a ballhawk and getting that ball out. That’s one of the key emphasis throughout my time at Northern Iowa. Not basically mimicking his game but taking bits and pieces and adding it to mine.”
The turnover bits and pieces of his game will be welcome additions for a team that totaled just 17 total turnovers last season and whose cornerbacks (Kyle Fuller, Tracy Porter) combined for just three interceptions.
But Hall has started at linebacker, is a physical defensive back, and is likely to get at least a look at safety as well. There his football template changes.
“For safety positions, I’ve always kind of saw myself as a ‘Honey Badger,’” Hall said, referencing Arizona Cardinals All-Pro defensive back Tyrann Mathieu. “Being able to play a little corner, coming down in the slot and guarding those quicker guys and being able to stay up top and cover ground. That’s huge in the game these days.”
In one of those ironies of NFL life, Miami safety Deon Bush frequently worked with fellow Hurricane and NFL veteran Antrel Rolle. Now Bush is on a vector that puts him on a possible roster collision course with Rolle.
Rolle was hampered by injuries all year, starting just seven games before finishing the season on injured reserve.
“I grew up watching Antrel Rolle, and while he was down here in Miami I was working out with him, so he's kind of like a mentor to me,” Bush said. “He's been in the league for a long time and I want to be in the league for a long time, so there's a lot to learn from him. It's just great having another player from ‘The U,’ being like a family, like a brotherhood and it'll be great playing with him.”
Where Bush fits warrants watching, with Adrian Amos ensconced at free safety but the other position is very much shrouded in doubt.
That has become something of a Bears tradition at safety.
In 2014 the Bears selected Minnesota safety Brock Vereen in the fourth round. By the end of that season Vereen was starting alongside Ryan Mundy.
But the Bears signed Rolle early in free agency and Vereen lost the starting job almost at the outset of training camp, eventually released in late September. Mundy went on injured reserve with a hip injury and was done for the year.
Last year the Bears drafted Amos out of Penn State in the fifth round. He became a day one starter alongside Rolle.
Bush projects as an immediate fit for special teams but also has shown the speed (4.48 sec. in the 40) to work in coverage, a critical skill set for a position once viewed more in terms of run support. Bush collected 103 tackles and three interceptions over his junior and senior seasons, in addition to forcing five fumbles in the 2014 season.
“I take big pride in being a big hitter, that's how I grew up playing the game,” Bush said. “I've been trying to be the best hitter on my team (since my early days). I just take pride. That's how I like to play the game of football. I like to play tough, I like to put fear in my opponent and that's a big thing in my game.”