The Bears didn’t sign Le’Veon Bell, but they still have a Pro Bowl running back to whom they can turn.
Just 21 months removed from participating in the Pro Bowl, Lamar Miller was signed to the Bears’ practice squad last week. He hasn’t played in a regular-season game since the 2018 season with the Texans after being carted off the field with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during a preseason game last year.
Miller found a familiar landing spot. Bears running backs coach Charles London mentored Miller in 2016-17 with the Texans, and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor held the same title with the Dolphins when Miller totaled 1,971 rushing yards in 2014-15.
That comfort should help Miller learn the playbook, but the Bears appear to be more concerned about evaluating Miller physically after he began practicing Wednesday.
‘‘Right now, being able to see him get back to where he wants to be, where we want to be, is important,’’ coach Matt Nagy said. ‘‘And when he gets to that point, now you’re looking at just being able to strengthen that running back room and give you a guy who can obviously run between the tackles. I think he fits well into our scheme and what we do. He can catch the football. . . . He can be a valuable running back for us.’’
When? Nagy used the phrase ‘‘week by week’’ when talking about how the Bears would monitor Miller’s strength coming off the injury. Even though teams can promote practice-squad players on Sundays without having to make roster room, it seems unlikely they would do that with Miller against the Panthers.
Nagy claimed he was content with his running backs when he was asked about Bell, who signed with the Chiefs on Thursday after being let go by the Jets. But a team that has two healthy kickers on its roster in case of a coronavirus outbreak certainly can use another backfield weapon — in case of injury, illness or poor play.
David Montgomery is 25th in the NFL with 247 rushing yards and now is being asked to pick up some of Tarik Cohen’s pass-catching snaps. He ranks among the top 10 in broken tackles and yards after contact per rush — characteristics that help him when running behind an inconsistent offensive line — but he hasn’t turned into the do-everything star the Bears envisioned when they drafted him last year.
Montgomery’s backups are Cordarrelle Patterson, who has spent five whole games as a full-time running back; Ryan Nall, who has two career regular-season carries; and rookie Artavis Pierce, who has none.
Miller, who has 1,354 career rushes and 209 career catches, brings a level of experience the Bears just don’t have. London painted him as an introvert but said he’ll open up as the weeks go on.
‘‘I like what David is doing; I think CP gets better and better every day,’’ London said. ‘‘But I think Lamar can bring another dimension: a guy that has played a lot of football, a guy that understands a lot, a guy who can fit into the scheme that we’re trying to do.’’
The Bears said the same about Mike Davis last season, only to glue him to the bench and eventually waive him in the name of helping their compensatory-draft-pick formula. On Sunday, he’ll start at running back for the Panthers and try to continue to dominate as Christian McCaffrey’s replacement.
If Miller looks explosive and healthy — and that’s an important caveat — the Bears need to do with him what they couldn’t do with Davis: They must find a creative way to include him in their rushing attack.
‘‘If it comes to the point, I’m sure he’ll be prepared to help us,’’ Lazor said.
Miller isn’t Bell. He won’t bring the burst, pass-catching skill or potential for off-field drama. But in a coronavirus season in which teams hoard depth, Miller gives the Bears something new: experience at running back.
‘‘He has explosive speed and acceleration,’’ Lazor said. ‘‘He’s very decisive, in my experience with him, when the ball’s in his hand. I think over time, being around a lot of places and a lot of running backs, you want running backs in this league who don’t stutter their feet, who are decisive. Lamar has done that. He can accelerate through a hole. . . . I’m glad he’s with us.’’