John Fox was quick to remind reporters at the Bears’ training camp facility in Bourbonnais that no one was even thinking about Jordan Howard at this time last year.
He’s not wrong. Let’s remember that Howard was a blip on the radar in July 2016, as he was buried behind starter Jeremy Langford and back-up Ka’Deem Carey. But an unfortunate injury to Langford allowed for Howard to open a door, run through it, and never look back. Howard enters 2017 in a better position than Langford did, having rushed for 1,313 yards, making a Pro Bowl appearance, and coming into camp motivated and reportedly in excellent shape. With the top of the depth chart settled, however, there’s a worthwhile battle for the remaining playing time, as well as roster positioning, in process.
One of the running backs the Bears brought in this offseason was Benny Cunningham, an experienced back who cut his teeth as a return specialist and is the type of back who can make plays catching the ball out of the backfield. On Thursday, Fox was asked what Cunningham brings to the table and the Bears’ head coach seemed intrigued by the potential.
“Benny’s a veteran guy who’s earned a lot of respect from a lot of football people around the league,” Fox said during Thursday’s meeting with the press. Fox added that Cunningham brings toughness and a steady presence, as well as help on the special teams unit. You can check out Fox’s entire press conference here.
Cunningham has averaged 27.8 yards per kick return in 43 games over the last three seasons. He hasn’t been given too many turns as a pure running back, and his rush attempts have decreased in each of his last two seasons. Still, Cunningham has hauled in 78.2 percent of passes thrown his way, which would make him a welcome addition to an offense that didn’t have that kind of production from any of its backs last seasons.
It’s almost bewildering to think how far Langford’s star has fallen in just a year. He gained 816 yards from scrimmage and scored seven touchdowns as a rookie, spelling Matt Forte when he missed time due to an injury. Now, he finds himself in a camp battle at one of the deepest positions. Offseason ankle surgery probably didn’t do him any favors, but Fox noted that Langford has been cleared to practice. That’s a positive sign for a player looking to get back into the swing of things and not fall further down the depth chart. Fox said the plan is to bring him along slowly, get him better everyday, and not try to wear him down with reps.
Between Langford’s pending progress and Cunningham’s well-rounded skill set, there is a lot to watch to keep an eye on beyond Howard in the running backs room.