Bears RB David Montgomery takes center stage in backfield — with high stakes

With Khalil Herbert on injured reserve, Montgomery should get the clear majority of the carries over rookie Trestan Ebner. What he does with that opportunity will be a big factor in his upcoming free agency.

SHARE Bears RB David Montgomery takes center stage in backfield — with high stakes
A photo of David Montgomery running through tacklers against the Lions.

Montgomery needs to average 81 yards rushing per game the rest of the season to hit 1,000.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Bears running back David Montgomery is playing in the NFL’s best rushing attack by far, but he’s the only one in it who isn’t putting up splashy numbers.

Although Montgomery hasn’t voiced even a syllable of frustration, it’s really bad timing as he heads into free agency at the end of the season. The remaining seven games are his last chance to earn a big contract, whether that’s an extension with the Bears or a restart elsewhere.

Montgomery, fellow running back Khalil Herbert and quarterback Justin Fields have roughly the same number of rushes, but Fields is second in the league at 7.2 yards per carry and Herbert is tied for fourth at 6.0, while Montgomery has managed just 3.8. Fourteen running backs are averaging 4.8 or more yards per rush.

All that said, there may be hope for Montgomery yet. Herbert’s hip injury — a “super big loss,” in Montgomery’s words — hurts the offense and will keep him out until at least Week 16 against the Bills. But it almost certainly will mean more carries for Montgomery, starting Sunday against the Falcons.

The Bears are going to use rookie Trestan Ebner in the running game, but it probably won’t be the same split of carries they had between Montgomery and Herbert. Montgomery has 115 carries to Herbert’s 89 in games when both played. Against the Falcons, it’s reasonable to expect 75% or more of the running back carries will go to Montgomery.

Bears coaches swear by his pass-blocking, which has been extremely valuable this season, with a significant dropoff from him to any of the other running backs in that department. Montgomery also is universally respected at Halas Hall for his tenacity and toughness.

But blocking and grit typically aren’t the measurements of a running back when teams weigh how much to spend. It’s the most difficult position at which to get paid, and only game-changers like the Titans’ Derrick Henry or the Colts’ Jonathan Taylor hit the jackpot.

More than anything, it usually comes down to yardage. With 434 yards, Montgomery ranks 30th in the NFL. He also has two rushing touchdowns and has caught 15 passes for 150 yards.

But whereas Herbert is second in the NFL at 1.91 yards more than expected per rush, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, Montgomery is getting .03 yards fewer than expected on his runs.

Asked last month if the shared backfield dampened his view on Montgomery as part of the Bears’ future, general manager Ryan Poles said no.

“David has run really, really well — he runs hard,” Poles said, highlighting a distinction between Montgomery’s power game and Herbert’s shiftier, speedier style. “[He’s] one of my favorite players on the team [because of] how he approaches the game and attacks it on Sundays.”

Montgomery has a career-low 12.8 carries per game after averaging 16.2 before this season. His 122 yards on 15 carries against the Packers in Week 2 was his best game of the season, but he hasn’t hit 70 yards in a game outside of that night. In 54 games with the Bears, including one playoff appearance, he has topped 100 yards eight times and finished under 40 yards 16 times.

Even though most of his career was in former coach Matt Nagy’s run-deficient offense, that’s still a sufficient sample size for teams to evaluate. His 3.8 yards per carry this season is a hair below the 3.9 he averaged over his first three.

The upside is there’s still time to make a case for a contract. A lot can change in seven games, and the Bears seem inclined to remain reliant on the run. If Montgomery averages 81 yards per game the rest of the way — an ambitious but possible goal — he’ll have his second 1,000-yard season.

If he’s bulldozing defenses, the Bears will keep the ball in his hands. This should be the best chance he’s ever had to show what he can do.

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