Jordan Howard: From draft steal to starter to star

In a post just before the draft last year, I tabbed two running backs that I hoped the Bears would pursue aside from Ezekiel Elliott, who obviously was drafted #4 overall and would’ve required a steep price to obtain.

One was former Notre Dame standout C.J. Prosise (some bias there…), who was drafted in the third round by the Seattle Seahawks and briefly re-ignited an offense badly missing one of my favorite players, Marshawn Lynch, before injuring his shoulder.

The other player: some dude named Jordan Howard.

Truthfully, once Prosise came off the board, I was sure that the Bears would take Howard with one of their three 4th-round picks. Oh well, one round late is better than never.

Fast-forward about four months from his selection by the Bears in the 5th-round (150th overall), and I’m fixated on him as I watch Bears training camp from the sidelines at Olivet Nazarene University.

At this point, he’s working as the 4th running back in the rotation, but there’s something about watching him in drills that just stands out to me: the fluid but powerful way he ran with the football, the patient yet determined way he attacked holes, and even the hands he showed out of the backfield, which were better than I was expecting to see.

He was by far the biggest running back on the field, but he moved with a certain smoothness and purpose that belied his size.

Listening to Alshon Jeffery talk about him after last Saturday’s game, he certainly seems that he saw the same thing that I, and many others, saw early in Howard’s time with the Bears. Via Patrick Finley of the Sun-Times:

“It’s something that we’d always seen in training camp. I mean he’s an impressive guy. He’s impressing us. It’s something we’ve been seeing since training camp. We just wanted to see what we do when he get his opportunity when he gets the ball.”

I was only at training camp for two days, but I left Bourbonnais with a distinct feeling that this 5th-round rookie just might be the best pure running back on the roster.

Then came this sneaking feeling that truthfully had been in the back of my mind since the moment the Bears drafted him: watch this kid become the starting running back this season. After watching him tear through defenses in preseason and in limited work in his two first regular season appearances against Philadelphia and Dallas, that thought was on just about every Bears fan’s mind.

Just look at the kid now.

Through 14 games played (12 starts), Howard, sitting at 1,178 yards, will very likely end up setting a new franchise rookie record for rushing yards in a season, with Matt Forte only 60 yards ahead of him at 1,238.

His six 100-yard games, which he locked up during last Saturday’s loss to Washington, are the most ever by a Bears rookie.

His 5.1 yards per carry currently sit tied at 4th overall in the league with New Orleans’ Mark Ingram and the MVP/fellow Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate Elliott.

And if you like advanced metrics, he’s even ranked 7th overall by Pro Football Focus (79.3), second only among rookies to Elliott and in the company of veteran mainstays like LeSean McCoy and DeMarco Murray.

He’s done it all in spite of injuries along the offensive line, especially to Josh Sitton and Kyle Long, uncertainty at the quarterback position, and an offensive coordinator that has refused to fully trust him/has forgotten that he exists at times when teams lead the Bears by a touchdown or more.

(And, as if you needed any other reason to like the guy, there he was last Saturday, chasing down Will Blackmon from behind on what very likely would’ve been a pick-6 thrown by Matt Barkley even with the game out of reach. I’m not one for romanticizing any “try-hard,” feel-good nonsense, but in that moment, I can’t deny what I saw: a player that, unlike much of the current Bears roster, is ready to be winner right now.)

Now, I have no idea what this offseason will bring for the Bears. Will they fire their coach and/or offensive coordinator? Eh…maybe, but my guy says no. Will they have a new starting quarterback next year? Almost 100% yes. Will the Bears’ best receiver, Jeffery, depart for greener pastures? Toss up.

What the Bears do know, however, is that they’re going into next season with one of the best interior offensive lines (when healthy) in the league and a guy who has averaged 5.5 yards/carry this year running between the tackles. Hello…

If John Fox is indeed the head coach next year and really wants to get back to his apparent philosophy of smash-mouth, ball-control, defense-first football, he has exactly the blunt instrument with which to accomplish that goal (though one has to wonder why it took a Jeremy Langford injury to figure that out/why he hasn’t been used always been used efficiently since becoming the starter).

If Dowell Loggains is back and continuing to peddle his endlessly repeated call-sheet of dig routes, bootlegs, and empty sets on 3rd-and-1, perhaps another year of watching Howard break tackles and burst through holes for huge gains might give him pause before he abandons the run game while only down 3 points.

If the Bears draft a rookie quarterback who ends up starting Week 1, he’ll have a solid presence standing behind him to help to take the pressure off early in his career so that he can develop (provided that he has the right offensive coordinator…).

In fact, at this point, the Bears could end up with an entirely new coaching staff, a new quarterback, a new #1 receiver, etc., and still have the capability to succeed on offense.

Why? Because they unwittingly drafted the cornerstone of their offense this past year with a value pick in the 5th round, and if all goes well, he will be standing back there 40-50 plays a game, ready to grind opposing defenses into dust.

Right now, and perhaps even if the Bears do strike gold at the quarterback position this offseason, Jordan Howard is the key to the Bears offense. If the Bears are wise, they’ll take the reins off him next year and let him ride.

I was thrilled the day the Bears drafted him and have been impressed with him since the first time I saw him up close. And yet, I think the best is still clearly yet to come for Mr. Howard.

I’m looking forward to it.

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