Underrating a running back with back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons to start his career should be difficult, but that’s pretty much where we are with Jordan Howard entering the third year of his impressive NFL career.
Howard has been snubbed from various top-player lists, was the subject of trade rumors, and depending on which projections you’ve seen, might be in a position to lose a share of snaps because of a new offensive scheme that could give more reps to a better receiver out of the backfield. But don’t let the noise drown out what we know about a player who figures to be a key cog in the Bears offense. Howard is one of the league’s rare load-carrying backs who can get it done between the tackles, but also bounce it outside for a big gain.
Which is why it’s a bit surprising to read that new 49ers back Jerick McKinnon is viewed as a more attractive fantasy player than Howard heading into the 2018 season. Michael Moore of Pro Football Focus provides the analysis for the one-on-one showdown, in which he picks McKinnon over Howard.
“Howard’s troubles in the passing game are very real and it’s clear the Bears want to focus on that more this year,” Moore wrote. “Meanwhile, McKinnon was handed a fat contract and has little competition when it comes to carries.”
It’s strange to see the perception of Howard’s value dipping because of his issues as a receiver are bleeding into the world of fantasy football, but let’s try to address the main problem here regarding his receiving skills.
While Howard’s pass-catching problems are a concern (one he has addressed and has been working on throughout the offseason with a new coach, as well as new methods) they aren’t enough of an issue to knock him down a few pegs to where you’re debating whether he is a more valuable fantasy asset than McKinnon. And in a cruel twist of irony, how the Bears and 49ers use their respective backs in games of consequence will eventually lead us to which player will be better for your fantasy team. Go figure.
Moore sees McKinnon’s best-case scenario as a season in which he rushes for 1,000 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns, while adding 500 receiving yards. That’s the kind of stuff clear-cut RB1s are made of in the fantasy world. But the thing about that is Howard is already pretty much there.
Howard has averaged 273 carries, 1,257 yards, and eight touchdowns per 16 games. In what was considered a down year, Howard gained more than 1,100 yards and scored nine touchdowns. That touchdown total is impressive considering the Bears were tied with the Jets and Raiders for the fewest average red zone scoring attempts per game last season. A better offense around him should lead to more red zone trips, and thus, more scoring opportunities. Sounds good to me.
And while Howard doesn’t project to get nearly as many receiving yards as McKinnon’s best-case scenario suggests, Howard did gain 298 receiving yards as a rookie despite catching just 58 percent of the passes thrown his way. If Howard improves on his receiving, he could flirt with that number or at least perform well enough to where he isn’t dinged for his inability to haul in passes.
This isn’t a knock on McKinnon, who will probably turn in a fine fantasy season with an expanded role in San Francisco’s offense. But if McKinnon’s ceiling turns out to be Howard’s floor, how could you pass on Howard for McKinnon when it comes time to put together your rosters during draft season?