The Bears have some decisions to make soon.
Much of the conversation surrounding upcoming contract extensions for the Bears is focused on linebacker Roquan Smith. That’s to be expected. Smith is entering the fifth and final season of his rookie contract. As a two-time second-team All-Pro performer, Smith stands to earn a ton of money. He deserves to be paid on par with the highest-paid linebackers in the NFL.
But Smith isn’t the only Bear on a rookie contract who could use a new deal. Running back David Montgomery is also entering the final year of his four-year rookie contract. Montgomery was a 2019 third-round draft pick (73rd overall).
Running back has become a position that NFL teams are more and more hesitant to spend big money on. But the best of the best are still getting paid. Montgomery is likely to be in that camp soon.
Below is a rough comparison between Montgomery and several running backs who earned contract extensions in recent years, and who had similar production to Montgomery. Yardage and touchdowns are a combination of rushing and receiving.
|Running back||Second contract||Per year average||Years pro||Games missed||Combined yards (rush & rec) per season prior to extension||Combined TDs per season|
|Nick Chubb||3 years, $36 million; $20 million guaranteed||$12 million||3||4||1,378||10|
|Dalvin Cook||5 years, $63 million; $28 million guaranteed||$12.6 million||3||19||1,006||6.4|
|Aaron Jones||4 years, $48 million; $13 million guaranteed||$12 million||4||10||1,105.3||10.8|
|Alvin Kamara||5 years, $75 million; $33.8 million guaranteed||$15 million||3||3||1,492||12.3|
|Joe Mixon||4 years, $48 million; $10 million guaranteed||$12 million||3||4||1,267||7|
Montgomery holds his own with the others on this list. From a yardage perspective, he performed better than Dalvin Cook and Aaron Jones prior to when they signed extensions (Cook tore his ACL in 2017 and missed significant time, which brought his numbers down). Joe Mixon might be the best comparison. Mixon’s and Montgomery’s numbers are nearly equal.
One thing going against Montgomery, which isn’t shown in this chart, is that of the six running backs on the list, he has the worst yards per carry of the bunch prior to earning an extension. Montgomery leads these six running backs in carries over that time. So it’s fair to argue that his volume of carries affects his stat line.
For Montgomery and his camp, a $12 million per year average should be where the conversation starts. He won’t be near Alvin Kamara’s $15 million per year average. But any Bears fans who think paying a running back is overrated should realize what – in this instance – a bargain actually looks like: $10-11 million per year.
Montgomery was a top-five running back in 2020. Missing four games due to a knee injury in 2021 limited his production. He easily would’ve had another 1,000-yard season if he played in those four games. If he matched his season average in those four games, he would’ve finished sixth in the NFL in rushing yards.
A four-year, $48 million contract with somewhere between $12 million or $20 million guaranteed is probably what it will cost the Bears to extend Montgomery.
Additionally, Montgomery stands to benefit more than anyone from the scheme shift that is happening under the new coaching staff. The Bears are implementing a completely different run-blocking scheme under offensive coordinator Luke Getsy.
When Matt LaFleur took over as Packers head coach in 2019 and implemented a Kyle Shanahan-style rushing attack, the Packers went from the 22nd-ranked NFL rushing attack in 2018 to eighth by 2020. Getsy is bringing that same style of offense with him to Chicago. Montgomery could be in line for his best years yet.
Wear and tear
During the season immediately following their extensions (which was the final year of their rookie contract), Cook and Chubb both had 1,000-yard seasons with Pro Bowl appearances. Kamara, who has always been more of a receiving back, had his best season in terms of yards from scrimmage and touchdowns and was also a Pro Bowler. Mixon suffered a foot injury and missed 10 games, but rebounded in 2021 to rush for 1,205 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Jones was the only one who played out the fourth year of his rookie deal before signing an extension prior to 2021. He was relatively healthy last season, but had the worst year of his career. At 26, he was also the oldest of the bunch to receive an extension.
Prior to receiving an extension, Chubb had 1,541 combined touches in both the NFL and college. Jones had 1,511, Cook had 1,327, Kamara had 1,202 and Mixon had 1,166. Montgomery would be second on that list with 1,530. He was a workhorse in college and has been a workhorse for the Bears.
Montgomery turns 25 next week. Most running backs peak between 22 and 26. Production begins to slow in their late 20s, as the Washington Post illustrated in 2020.
How might the Bears’ salary cap situation factor in?
Here’s the kicker, though. General manager Ryan Poles has put the Bears in tremendous financial shape in 2023 and beyond.
The contract Jones signed with the Packers last year is a good example of what cap-strapped teams have to do to keep star players. Jones signed a four-year, $48 million extension in March 2021. The Packers back-loaded the contract in order to push most of the cap hit into the future.
Jones’s contract had a cap hit of only about $5 million in both 2021 and in 2022. That number jumps to $20 million in 2023, although the team can recoup about half of that if it cuts Jones prior to the 2023 season.
The Bears are not a cap-strapped club. With $99.6 million in available cap space in 2023, according to OverTheCap.com, the Bears have – by far – the most salary cap space available of all 32 NFL teams. Even if they have to dole out upwards of $20 million per year to Roquan Smith, that still leaves plenty of room to extend Montgomery and have ample money left over to address free agency needs.
The Bears don’t necessarily have to back-load a contract for Montgomery, like the Packers did with Jones. The fact is, the Bears have the space to extend Montgomery, especially if they can structure a contract in such a way that it’s relatively painless to release Montgomery two years into the deal, if necessary.