BOURBONNAIS – After finishing the 2018 season a disappointing 27th in the NFL in average gain per rush and failing to mount a consistent rushing attack all season long, the Chicago Bears spent this past offseason almost totally overhauling their running back room.
Of the five backs that finished the 2018 season on the roster, only Tarik Cohen is still in the
Jordan Howard was traded, Benny Cunningham and fullback Michael Burton were allowed to leave via free agency, and Tayquan Mizzell is now trying to make the team as a wideout.
In their places are free agent Mike Davis, third-round draft choice David Montgomery, seventh-rounder Kerrith Whyte, and free-agent receiver and return specialist Cordarrelle Patterson, who will take snaps in the backfield as well.
But what if the answer to the Bears’ rushing dilemma has been here all along hiding in plain sight?
The best running back on the Bears during the 2018 exhibition season was an undrafted rookie free agent out of Oregon State, Ryan Nall.
Nall lead the entire NFC with 32 rushes for 223 yards – a 7.0 average – and 1 TD rushing, and 4 catches for 25 yards (6.3 yards per catch) receiving.
In spite his outstanding rookie camp, Nall got the ax in the final cut-down to 53 last year.
But he did spend the 2018 season on the Bears’ practice squad, and he’s back for another run at the final 53.
I asked him Saturday how it felt a year ago to have such a big camp and still not make the team.
“It was a good learning experience to be able to be fortunate enough to come back to the team on the practice squad and learn the playbook in the offseason and keep learning it, not only my position but the other positions as well,” he said. “The concepts, it was good for me, so come this year I feel more prepared and more comfortable in the offense and to be able to showcase my skills.”
At 6-foot-2 and 232 pounds with a 4.58-second 40-yard dash time, Nall doesn’t appear to be the type of back Ryan Pace has been shopping for to fit Matt Nagy’s scheme.
But Nall thinks it fits him well.
“I feel like I’m very versatile,” he said. “I’m able to split out, run routes, as well as run up the middle and be the bulldozer, a third-and-one go-get-it type back.
“Coach Nagy’s offense allows me to be both, being able to play my game, get between the tackles and make people miss, as well as be split out and run some routes and catch the ball as well. I think that I can be able to be out there and help the team that way.”
Nall isn’t worried about the new competition.
“I don’t think it really matters,” he said. “Benny and Jordan, they were both great backs, and fortunately they’re on their own paths now. For me, I was fortunate enough to be able to stay here, and they wanted me to come back, and I’m just going to take advantage of the opportunity.”
While Nall is unlikely to take carries away from Montgomery or Cohen, it’s hard to say how far behind the other backs he really is.
One edge he could have is with Michael Burton gone, the Bears don’t have a fullback in camp right now. Should they carry five backs again ...
“We don’t necessarily have a true fullback in this offense, and sometimes the tight end may have to come in and play that position, and sometimes I may have to fill that role at times too,” Nall said. “That’s why in Coach Nagy’s offense, everybody has to know every position.
“If a man does go down, I should be able to step up and kind of fill that role to the best of my ability.”
Clearly Nall isn’t what Nagy and Pace would create in a lab to fit the head coach’s offense, but it seems like every time you turn around, he’s doing something to catch your eye.
The young man from Oregon remains a long shot at best to be a Bear – but don’t tell him that, because he doesn’t appear to be listening.