The Bears set a franchise record for rushing yards in 2022, their first year under general manager Ryan Poles and head coach Matt Eberflus. The team rushed for 3,014 yards, becoming the fifth team ever to rush for 3,000 yards.
Eberflus and his staff put a heavy emphasis on the run game. Early in the season, that was through a traditional power rushing attack, led by the running backs. As the season evolved, that rushing attack leaned more heavily on quarterback Justin Fields.
David Montgomery entered the season as the lead back, but second option Khalil Herbert was coming off a strong rookie campaign in 2021. Both were significant contributors in 2022.
Montgomery and Herbert proved to be nice complements to one another. The two have different skill sets. Montgomery is a bruiser who spends a lot of time moving laterally and breaking tackles. Herbert is more of a downhill runner with a keen eye for holes.
Montgomery picked up right where he left off as an all-purpose back. He has the skill set to remain on the field on any down. He was the team’s third-leading pass catcher with 34 receptions on the season.
He rushed for 801 yards and five touchdowns on 201 carries, adding 316 yards and one touchdown as a receiver, in 16 games. His 4 yards per carry marked the second-highest total of his four-year career.
Herbert, meanwhile, led all NFL running backs with 5.7 yards per carry. He totaled 731 yards and four touchdowns on 129 carries. The only thing that kept him from outgaining Montgomery on the season was a four-game stretch he missed late in the year with a hip injury.
Herbert has to improve as a pass blocker. Montgomery was clearly the better of the two in that area, and that’s a big reason why Montgomery found himself on the field on third downs. Herbert caught only nine passes all season.
When the offensive line was banged up late in the year, the run game slowed down significantly. Fields’ scrambling abilities proved to be a better rushing attack oftentimes than the traditional run game. That can’t be the long-term plan, however.
Rookie sixth-round draft pick Trestan Ebner had a quiet first season in Chicago. The Baylor product had some chances. He averaged just 2.3 yards per carry and totaled only 54 rushing yards on the season, while catching two passes. When Herbert went out for a month, it was third-year veteran Darrynton Evans who proved to be the more reliable option.
1. Montgomery left the Week 3 contest against the Houston Texans with an ankle injury in the first quarter. With Montgomery out, Herbert stepped up and totaled 157 rushing yards. His 52-yard run in the third quarter sparked a Bears comeback. Herbert scored two touchdowns in the game. The Bears rushed for a season-high 281 yards that afternoon.
JUICEEEEEE— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) September 25, 2022
📺: #HOUvsCHI on CBS pic.twitter.com/PYYJO7lg2m
2. Montgomery played one of his best games Nov. 20 in Atlanta. He rushed for 67 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries, while also catching three passes for 54 yards. He and Fields teamed up for a spectacular 32-yard pitch and catch on a fourth-quarter scramble where Fields pointed Montgomery where to go and unleashed a perfect throw.
A few plays later Montgomery scored a 2-yard touchdown to tie the game.
.@justnfields with a DIME to @MontgomerDavid 🎯— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) November 20, 2022
📺: #CHIvsATL on FOX pic.twitter.com/oF9Ym6JOgg
Montgomery is set to become a free agent. Herbert has two years remaining on his rookie contract. Ebner has three years on his. Evans is a restricted free agent.
This might seem low, given that the Bears set a team rushing record. But the quarterback accounted for more than 1,100 of those 3,000-plus rushing yards.
Poles has spoken highly of Montgomery, even calling him one of his favorite players on the team. That points to Poles making a strong effort to re-sign Montgomery. The 25-year-old running back might want to test out free agency, otherwise he would’ve signed an extension already.
Poles has been conservative in the free-agent waters so far. Would he be willing to pay a running back big money? That depends just how much Montgomery believes he’s worth. Poles also has the franchise tag in his back pocket. Of all the team’s impending free agents, Montgomery is the only one worthy of a franchise tag. The downside, of course, is the tag can sometimes hurt the team-player relationship.
Could Herbert be the lead back without Montgomery? He still has a lot to prove as a pass blocker and a pass catcher. As a runner, his potential is high. He could certainly be an early down workhorse if the Bears also brought in a more reliable third-down pass catcher.