The Bears enter the 2019 offseason in an unfamiliar situation. While the last few offseasons allowed Ryan Pace to flex Chicago’s financial muscles to fill many holes on the roster, this time Pace has little to no money for free agents — albeit fewer holes to fill.
Further complicating things is the fact that the Bears will be without their first- and second-round picks in the upcoming NFL Draft. Though no one will argue that losing those two picks to acquire Khalil Mack and Anthony Miller was not worth it, this is the reality in which the Bears find themselves.
So, how can they get impact talent while adhering to their financial and draft limitations?
The easiest way is to focus on improving the running back position. Luckily, it’s the one position where one can find impact talent anywhere in the draft.
Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, Chris Carson, Phillip Lindsay, James Conner, Marlon Mack and even Jordan Howard are all talented running backs who were drafted at or later than where the Bears are currently drafting: the third round.
There has been speculation about Howard’s fit in Matt Nagy’s scheme, and his first year in the offense certainly didn’t silence his detractors. Even if they choose to stick with Howard for one more year, don’t rule out the Bears drafting his successor this offseason.
So, who are some players the Bears could target on Day 3 of the NFL Draft?
Tony Pollard (Memphis)
It is difficult and detrimental to his value to pigeon-hole Tony Pollard as just a running back.
In fact, Pollard mostly played receiver for the Tigers in his career but did lineup as a traditional running back from time to time.
The man did everything for Memphis. Whether he lined up at receiver or running back, was used as a kick returner or even as a lead blocker for his more heralded teammate Darrell Henderson, Pollard excelled in whatever role was asked of him.
Over the last two seasons, Pollard ran the ball 108 times for 782 yards (7.24 yards per carry) while hauling in 75 receptions for 994 yards and combined for eight offensive touchdowns. He was also used as the team’s primary kick returner, where he tied an NCAA record with seven return touchdowns.
His offensive stats may not be eye-popping, but that has more to do with the variety of roles he was used in than lack of talent.
While he played all over the field, it was the traits he displayed in the open field that lead many to believe running back will be his primary position in the NFL. And I have to agree.
Whether it be as a receiver, running back or kick returner, Pollard is at his best when he can get into the open field. He has above average athleticism and wiggle to make defenders miss but also has displayed the ability to run a guy over to gain tough yards. He might lack elite top-end speed, but Pollard’s ability to get in and out of his cuts quickly without losing speed is hard to teach.
He might not have the same game-changing athleticism that Tarik Cohen has (who does?), but at 6-foot and 208 pounds he has the size to run between the tackles that Cohen lacks. He also displays good lateral quickness and vision to hit the right hole.
As a wide receiver, Pollard has some limitations, which is why most view him as a running back at the next level. His route running is not as crisp as it needs to be, and he suffers from drops the farther his routes get from the line of scrimmage. Most of his value comes from creating yards after the catch. That is why he is best used in the screen game and running routes out of the backfield. Get him the ball in space and let him do what he does best.
His ability to stop and start quickly without needing a lot of space to get up to top gear is impressive. Some will say his lack of experience as a true running back is a negative, but you can’t teach Pollard’s natural athleticism and fluidity in the open field. He also does not have the same wear and tear on his body as other running backs in this draft.
As mentioned above, his route running needs some work. He also struggles with drops, especially when lined up as a wide receiver. While his versatility allows him to line up there from time to time, he does not present the same threat that Cohen does in that position.
Pollard will also need to improve his pass blocking if he wants to see the field in Year 1. This is most likely a product of not focusing on one position. Once he gets to work with a running backs coach full time, he has the size and skill to become at least adequate.
Pollard is an ideal draft candidate if the Bears retain Howard or if a veteran is brought in. I would not suggest handing Pollard the primary role as he is still quite raw for the position. But he could be used as a kick returner, an area the Bears desperately need to improve and on a few plays on offense each game.
Then once he has time to improve his blocking, he could take over as the other part of a two-headed monster with Cohen in Year 2.
Alexander Mattison (Boise State)
Alexander Mattison and Pollard are two very different players. While both could provide excellent value for the Bears, they provide that value in their own unique ways.
Where Pollard fits because of his athleticism and ability as a receiver, Mattison fits because of his ability as a runner while also being more reliable as a pass catcher than Howard.
Mattison offers a little more power and balance than Pollard as he is a much stockier 5-foot-11, 215 pounds. Watching Mattison run, it is impossible to not see glimpses of Howard.
He was also more productive on the stat sheet than Pollard. Over the last two seasons, he rushed 514 times for 2,501 yards (4.9 yards per carry) with 29 touchdowns. And while he is not as polished in the passing game, he is far from the liability that Howard is. He racked up 55 receptions for 457 yards over his two seasons.
Mattison is a tough downhill runner. He is at his best when he runs north to south although he has shown enough quickness and agility to bounce it outside if needed. He runs with great pad level, which allows him to run through arm tackles as well as run over defenders for extra yards. He always keeps his feet moving and rarely is brought down from first contact.
While not as flashy as Pollard, he provides much more utility as a workhorse running back and in short yardage situations. The play below won’t show up on any highlight reels but it shows off his tremendous balance and power.
He has a violent running style and simply won’t be brought down by corners or safeties. But Mattison is not just a power back. He won’t be confused for Barry Sanders anytime soon but has the requisite athleticism to make people miss in the open field. His top-end speed might be lacking, but he has the agility to work in tight spaces and the acceleration to get to top gear quickly.
He also loves to hurdle defenders.
He doesn’t have huge upside as a pass catcher, but he displays soft hands and rarely drops passes. Mattison also displayed good body control at times to adjust to errant throws.
Mattison has some nice running ability, but his overall athleticism is only average for the NFL level. The combine will be huge for him as he needs to prove he can play against elite NFL athletes. That being said, there have been plenty of productive running backs in the NFL without elite athleticism.
He doesn’t have the wiggle to consistently make defenders miss in the open field. Instead, he needs to rely on breaking tackles, which will be more difficult against NFL size.
His pass blocking, while better than Pollard’s, still has some room to improve. This is a must for any rookie looking to make an impact in his first season.
Devine Ozigbo (Nebraska)
Similar to Mattison, Devin Ozigbo is a big-bodied (6-foot, 235 pounds), north-to-south runner. He does show some lateral agility, which is impressive given his size. However, he isn’t a great pass catcher but can hold his own on this regard. Like most college backs, he needs to improve his pass blocking to see the field.
Qadree Ollison (Pittsburgh)
Qadree Ollison is a bigger back at 6-foot-2, 230 pounds. He is a similar style runner to Mattison and Ozigbo. While not overly quick, he does have a rare second gear for a guy his size. He is a capable receiver and pass blocker which shows he has utility on all three downs. He has a tendency to run with poor pad level, though. If he can fix this, with his size, he could be a steal in the later rounds.
Bryce Love (Stanford)
It seems weird talking about the 2017 Heisman runner up as a potential Day 3 pick, but that’s where we are at. After an incredible junior season, Bryce Love decided to return for his senior year, only to see his production and in turn his draft stock plummet. Love is undersized and has some durability concerns. But if you can take a flier on someone with his talent, it might be worth it late in the draft.
No matter your opinion of Howard, it would be pretty shocking if the Bears don’t address the running back position in some way this offseason. The Bears can get similar production for far less money than signing Howard to an extension.
All five of the players above bring their own unique strengths to the team and could provide excellent value on Day 3 of the draft. Selecting any of these players will also allow the Bears to use their only Day 2 pick on a more pressing need and valuable position such as defensive back or pass rusher.