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Trading Jordan Howard intensifies Bears’ search for right running back in draft

Bears running back Jordan Howard runs past the Packers' Mike Daniels. | Jeffrey Phelps, AP photo

A few days before heading to Phoenix for this past week’s NFL annual meeting, Bears coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace took a trip together to Columbus, Ohio.

Inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, they put Ohio State running back Mike Weber through a workout. It was captured on camera by a local Buckeyes reporter who later shared the video on Twitter.

“That was [receivers coach Mike] Furrey — that wasn’t me,” Nagy joked, referencing one of several Bears’ offensive assistants who share his baldness.

But it was Nagy. And he looked closely into Weber’s workout, his movements resembling his mannerisms at the Bears’ own practices.

The video became a public example of how serious the Bears are about finding the best running back for Nagy’s offense — a search that should intensify after they traded Jordan Howard to the Eagles on Thursday night for a sixth-round pick that can turn into a fifth-rounder based on Howard’s success.

By trading Howard now, the Bears have turned running back into a major “need” position for this year’s draft. That’s a break from the past for Pace, who typically has used free agency to maintain a best-player-available approach in the draft and also to cloak his intentions (e.g., signing Mike Glennon in 2017 before trading up to draft Mitch Trubisky at No. 2).

Of course, the Bears don’t see running back as their biggest need after signing Mike Davis to a two-year, $6 million contract on March 11. While Nagy had suggested the Bears were in a “good spot” with Howard as part of their backfield, he was excited about the signing of Davis, highlighting his vision and elusiveness.

“We thought that would be a good addition to our side of the ball on offense,” Nagy said during the coaches’ breakfast at the annual meeting. “We’re intrigued to get him in and start learning who he is as a person.”

That’s fine, but the Bears have been — and still are — extensively looking at running backs in the draft for a reason. They like that Davis doesn’t have “a lot tread on his tires,” as Nagy put it, especially when considering Howard’s past workload. But players also sit because they’re not good enough, and Davis will have to prove he is.

“From all the research we did on him,” Nagy said, “we thought [Davis] was a great fit.”

Similar things were said about receiver/returner Cordarrelle Patterson, a unique threat who was signed to a two-year, $10  million contract.

“We saw a role for him,” Nagy said. “You see what he did in New England with the jet sweeps, the [end] arounds [and] the screens, and I think that that’s a good fit for him. But for me, it’s kind of like a kid in a candy store.”

The Patriots also used Patterson, a 228-pounder, as a traditional running back.

“I liked it!” Nagy said. “You see how big he is.”

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Still, neither Davis nor Patterson should change the Bears’ emphasis on the draft. Their two-year contracts only are guaranteed through this season.

It helps that this year’s draft class is widely considered a good one for mid-round running backs. It certainly made trading Howard — a fifth-round selection in 2016 — more acceptable internally for the Bears, who start in the third round with the 87th overall pick.

But they still have to find the right guy.

“Any coach will tell you there’s a nice group of backs,” Nagy said. “They all kind of have their unique style. So some of them, they might not have the home-run speed, but he can run you over. This guy might have average hands, but he’s really great between the tackles. They’re all a little different.

“It comes down to, teams that are looking at running backs, what flavor do you like? What kind of ice cream do you like? And then, when you get in the draft, where are they going to be at?”

The Bears obviously want a back who provides more than Howard did, particularly as a pass catcher. (While Nagy and Pace were at Ohio State, Weber was filmed running and catching a pass on a wheel route.)

Howard is a good player, but his production — yards per carry, yards gained after contact and other advanced metrics — declined as the Bears improved. He often said he needed more carries to get going, but he was never going to get them in Nagy’s multi-faceted attack, and he likely won’t get them with the Eagles, either.

In other words, he became replaceable. The rest of the NFL knew that, so the Bears took what they could get.

The surprise is that the Bears didn’t wait to see what they could get for Howard closer to or during the draft. But the early move also suggests there wasn’t much of a market for him.

Now the Bears have to draft the right replacement. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Nagy and Pace pop up in another video working out a different running back.

“It’s hard to evaluate a lot of guys on tape and get a good feel for them,” Nagy said. “You try to as much as you can, but to be able to go there and see guys is great. We’ve done it with the quarterback position in years past, and it helps you out a lot.”

NOTE: The Bears re-signed safety DeAndre Houston-Carson to a one-year contract. He began the offseason as a restricted free agent but became free to sign elsewhere once the Bears decided not to offer him a tender last month.

Houston-Carson played 61.2 percent of the Bears’ special-teams snaps last season, third-most on the team.