Bear Down, Nerd Up: Who’s the better running back? Khalil Herbert or D’Onta Foreman?

Plus, where do the Bears’ top draft picks stand right now?

Chicago Bears running back Khalil Herbert stiff arms Denver Broncos linebacker Drew Sanders during their game Sunday, Oct. 1, 2023, at Soldier Field in Chicago.

The Bears have seven games remaining. They have plenty of questions to answer. Most notably, what’s the plan at quarterback moving forward?

Justin Fields has seven games to prove he’s still the future of this team at quarterback, assuming he returns from his dislocated thumb Sunday against Detroit. It’s possible general manager Ryan Poles already has made up his mind on what he believes Fields is and can be.

Fields is 6-25 as a starting quarterback in the NFL. He has been sacked 115 times in 33 games while throwing for 35 touchdowns and 27 interceptions. He has fumbled 32 times in 33 games.

At the same time, Fields was playing at a high level before the injury. Against Denver and Washington (admittedly, two bad secondaries) he put up gaudy passing numbers. At the very least, he has these next seven games to prove himself. Hopefully, for the Bears, the answer will be staring them in the face when the next seven games are over.

Here’s what other stats and numbers come to mind as we look ahead to the final seven games.

Who starts at running back? The Bears have a good problem at running back. They have two capable starters.

Khalil Herbert started the first five games before injuring his ankle. D’Onta Foreman started the next five in his place. There was little to no drop off in the rushing attack when Foreman took over for Herbert. The Bears have been running the ball at a high level all year, but especially since Week 5 when guard Teven Jenkins returned from a calf injury.

Herbert returned to practice last week for the first time in a month and seems likely to return to the active roster ahead of Sunday’s game against Detroit.

So what do the Bears do now? On one hand, nobody should lose a starting job because of injury. On the other hand, you can’t bench Foreman after seeing him play the past five weeks.

In the first five games, Herbert totaled 272 rushing yards on 51 carries, as well as 83 receiving yards and a touchdown on 10 receptions. Foreman was inactive for four of the five games when Herbert was the lead back. The coaches told Foreman he was inactive because he didn’t have a role on special teams, and backups Roschon Johnson and Travis Homer were key special teams contributors.

On the season, Foreman has totaled 367 yards and three touchdowns on 86 carries, along with 55 yards and a touchdown on nine receptions. Foreman definitely has benefited from the offensive line getting healthy and finding its groove. That wasn’t the case early in the season when Herbert led the way.

Peeling back another layer, the advanced metrics always have favored Herbert as one of the most efficient backs in the NFL. That continued to be the case through the first five games of this season. Per NFL Next Gen Stats, Herbert is the second-most efficient runner (in terms of running north to south) behind only Rams running back Kyren Williams. He doesn’t waste much movement cutting right or left. When Herbert sees a hole, he hits it hard.

That said, Foreman doesn’t rate poorly in the advanced metrics. Efficiency-wise, Foreman ranks 16th among 47 qualified running backs in that metric.

Neither back spends much time behind the line of scrimmage. They have almost identical numbers in this metric, according to Next Gen Stats. Herbert averages 2.66 seconds behind the line of scrimmage, and Foreman is right behind him at 2.67 seconds. Both rank in the top half of the NFL.

Per Pro Football Reference (whose numbers are through Week 9), Herbert averages 2.9 yards before first contact, while Foreman is at 3.1 yards. Again, quite similar. Herbert doesn’t have enough touches to qualify in this metric, but his 2.4 rush yards after first contact would be among the best in the NFL if he keeps it up moving forward.

So what will the Bears do?

Both players have earned touches. The Bears have the No. 5 rushing attack in football. There should be enough carries to feature them equally. If that means fewer touches for Johnson, the rookie backup, so be it. Matt Eberflus is trying to win games now, and he has two of the most efficient running backs in football.

It wouldn’t be a surprise if this is a split backfield, at least for a few weeks. Let the play of the two backs determine who has the hot hand down the stretch.

Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Poles walks on the field before a game against the Las Vegas Raiders, Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023, in Chicago.

Draft check in: If the season ended today, the Bears would hold the No. 1 overall draft pick (thanks to the Carolina Panthers) as well as the No. 5 pick (their own). They also hold the fifth pick of the third round, two fourth-round selections and a fifth-round pick.

According to ESPN’s simulations, the Bears and the New York Giants are basically neck and neck for the No. 1 pick. ESPN gives the Giants a 39.8% chance of landing the top pick, while the Bears (via the Panthers) have a 38.2% chance. That Panthers’ pick has a 92% chance of being a top-five pick.

The same is not true of the Bears’ own top draft pick. That pick, the one currently at No. 5, has only a 43.1% chance of ending up in the top five. The Bears have Fields coming back soon and have several winnable games on the remaining schedule (Minnesota, Arizona, Atlanta, Green Bay).

The Bears have not had two first-round picks in the same draft in 20 years. The last time was 2003, when they selected defensive end Michael Haynes at No. 14 and quarterback Rex Grossman at No. 22. They haven’t had two top-10 picks in the same year since 1979, when they took defensive tackle Dan Hampton at No. 4 and defensive end Al Harris at No. 9.

The last time they had two top-five picks, they selected two Hall of Famers. In 1965 they took linebacker Dick Butkus and running back Gale Sayers back-to-back at No. 3 and No. 4, respectively. Additionally, they drafted defensive end Steve DeLong at No. 6. DeLong also was drafted by the AFL’s San Diego Chargers and elected to play for the rival league instead of joining the Bears.

Beat someone good? The Bears haven’t beaten a team that had a winning record entering the game since they beat the Las Vegas Raiders on Oct. 10, 2021. For those keeping tabs at home, that means Eberflus has never beaten a team with a winning record.

The Bears will have a few chances down the stretch here. They face the 7-2 Detroit Lions twice, the 6-4 Minnesota Vikings on Nov. 27 and the 6-3 Cleveland Browns in mid-December.

The defense is playing well, and the offense is getting healthy. Might that streak end soon?

Sean Hammond

Sean Hammond

Sean is the Chicago Bears beat reporter for the Shaw Local News Network. He has covered the Bears since 2020. Prior to writing about the Bears, he covered high school sports for the Northwest Herald and contributed to Friday Night Drive. Sean joined Shaw Media in 2016.