When I drafted Jordan Howard at the end of the second round in my fantasy football league earlier this year, I couldn’t have been happier with the pick. Not only did I get someone wearing blue and orange every week (come on, everyone wants to root for guys on their own team), I got to bolster a running back duo already led by the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, Todd Gurley.
Obviously, there’s a relatively large gap between someone like Gurley, whose 1,305 yards last season came up just short of leading the NFL (Kareem Hunt, 1,327) and Howard, but the Bears’ RB1 has put up back-to-back 1,100+ yard rushing seasons to start his NFL career, including a 1,300 yard season of his own back in 2016. Howard is legitimately awesome and I was/still am thrilled to have him … but I had my concerns.
As any football fan could tell you, the position has evolved quite a lot in recent years. Suddenly, a running back’s ability to catch a pass is almost as important as their ability to find a gap, shed a tackle, or just hold onto the ball through trouble. And as any Bears fan can tell you, pass-catching has simply not been one of Howard’s strengths since his debut.
Howard was targeted 50 times as a rookie in 2016, but managed to haul in just 29 of those passes. That 58% catch ratio was second worst among running backs with at least 20 targets that year. Last season, he improved that number to 71.9%, but that still ranked 45th (of 68 qualified running backs). For a back who was otherwise among the most talented players at his position, this was a skill he was sorely lacking. It was holding him back. It was holding the Bears back. And it was a concern for any fantasy football owner.
Entering this season, my concerns grew by the presence and successes of Tarik Cohen, who was not only targeted 71 times (to Howard’s 32) last season, but was also a better overall pass-catcher (74.6 catch pct.). And of course there was also the incoming presence of Matt Nagy, who was used to a much more sure-handed running back in Hunt (84.1% catch rate last season), who found regular success throughout 2017 and saw an even heavier workload after Nagy took over the Chiefs’ play calling for the final five games of the season.
But I am very happy to tell you that after Sunday’s opener against the Packers, I’m not nearly as worried about Howard, his pass catching, or his ability to improve those skills anymore. In fact, I’m cautiously optimistic that Howard may be on his way to evolving as a player, himself, and how that new player will better-fit into Nagy’s scheme.
Over the offseason, Howard explained why he had such a hard time catching passes (began as a problem in high school, wasn’t something he was ever forced to address in college), before promising to use the offseason to address the issue. At the time, we were optimistic, but remained quite guarded, as it was something Howard had worked on for two years, but there did seem to be a genuinely renewed sense of attention and urgency heading into this season. And while the Bears may have played only one game so far, the early returns have been fantastic.
Howard was targeted with passes from Mitch Trubisky five times on Sunday and all five times he reeled in the football for a catch. He gained only 25 receiving yards on the day, but, obviously, had a 100% catch rate. That is one hell of a start.
For comparison’s sake, Howard was targeted with 5 or more passes only 7 times in the past two seasons combined and only once before has he caught five passes in a single game (September 24th, 2017 against Tampa Bay). He has topped the 25 receiving yard mark six times before, but I think we can glean far better information about his future as a pass-catch by focusing more on the volume of his targets and successful number of catches, than the total number of yards gained.
It’s also worth noting that this is the first time since Week 8 in 2017 that Cohen was out-targeted by Howard. Even if Howard didn’t pull down every single one of those catches, that would be enough to make you believe Nagy has more pass-catching in mind for Howard going forward, but the immediate success could push that even further.
So whether you’re a Bears fan pulling for Howard lead the Bears with a more modern RB workload or just a fantasy football owner who loves drafting Bears backs, Howard’s offseason work seems to have paid off so far. And if Nagy continues to be the sort of play-caller we know him to be, it might only continue from here.