Analyzing Bears’ backfield: Which RB will play the most?

With David Montgomery gone, the Bears will enter training camp with a three-headed monster in the backfield: D’Onta Foreman, returning player Khalil Herbert and rookie Roschon Johnson.

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Bears running back D’Onta Foreman works on the field during practice last month.

Bears running back D’Onta Foreman works on the field during practice last month.

Nam Y. Huh/AP

Sharing the load as a running back is nothing new to D’Onta Foreman.

That’s the way it has been since he first started playing football at age 7.

“Since I’ve been in little league, I’ve always shared carries with people,” he told the Sun-Times on Wednesday.

That’s less of a statement about Foreman, whom the Bears signed to a one-year deal in March, and more of one about the generation-long trend in football. The days of teams leaning on one back are becoming extinct.

The Bears were one of the last teams to come around. From 2008-15, only two players totaled more carries than Matt Forte. From 2019-22, only five ran more frequently than David Montgomery.

With Montgomery gone, the Bears will enter training camp with a three-headed monster in the backfield: Foreman, returning player Khalil Herbert and rookie Roschon Johnson. Travis Homer, the former Seahawks special-teams ace, will see some snaps, too.

“We’ll let that play out,” coach Matt Eber-flus said Wednesday. “We’re doing a lot of equal reps right now between [Foreman and Herbert]. And, of course, we got the young guy in there that might make a move, too.

“It’s great. It’s always about competition between those guys. Running-back position is a big spot. There’s a lot to do there in terms of protecting the quarterback No. 1, obviously running the rock No. 2, and being able to be a viable option out of the backfield in the receiving game.”

Based on play-caller habits and player strengths, Pro Football Focus projects the Bears will hand off to their lead back about two-thirds of the time in 2023, with the No. 2 taking about 31% of their snaps and a third-stringer 1.5%.

It’s more likely the gap between all three numbers are smaller than that, though. The question is: who’s the lead back?

“We know that multiple guys are going to be needed, that’s just the way things go,” running backs coach David Walker said last week. “So whether it’s two, three or four guys, they are going to be needed through the course of the season. Everybody is going to prepare like they are the starter, and we will go from there.”

It’s a good problem to have.

“When you don’t have enough,” Walker said, “that’s a problem.”

That’s the way the NFL is now. Only six running backs have been drafted in the top 10 in the last 11 years. Veterans who once commanded huge contracts are being replaced by tandems and trios — just ask Dalvin Cook and Ezekiel Elliott, who are still seeking employment after being cut by the Vikings and Cowboys, respectively.

PFF projects that only two teams — the Raiders and Titans — will have their lead back handle 85% or more of their team’s carries. The site projects only four other teams will lean on their top running back for 80% or more of their team’s handoffs. Everyone else is platooning.

Handling a big backfield can be challenging in practice, and the Bears are letting all three of their top guys try everything.

“It’s a balance,” Eberflus said. “You got to be able to feel it out, look at the skill and assess that, what they’re good at, and put those guys in position to do those jobs.”

Foreman is the favorite to lead the Bears in carries to start the season, though he figures to get less than the 55% Montgomery handled last year.

“I can be effective, I can be dominant,” he said. “I think a lot of people don’t really give me enough credit, in my opinion. I feel like some people, they don’t believe in it . . . I’ve dealt with that my whole life.”

Foreman — who has backed up stars Christian McCaffrey and Derrick Henry the last two seasons — made his mark after the Panthers traded the former in the middle of last season. Foreman handled two-thirds of the Panthers’ carries by a running back after the trade.

A strong performance by Foreman would allow the Bears to continue using Herbert as their home-run hitter. He led all running backs in yards per carry last year.

Herbert said he’s trying to stay calm during the running-back competition.

“I come in with the mindset, obviously, that I want to be the starter,” he said two weeks ago. “Just coming in with the mindset of leading.”

Johnson is the wild card. His playing time depends on his ability to pass-block. The Bears won’t play any running back who risks injury to Justin Fields.

“Understand that everyone’s good in their own right, and that everyone brings something to the table,” Foreman said. “To win a championship you need everybody.”

Just how much of everybody is a question the Bears need to answer by the end of training camp.

“Those guys are all tough,” Eberflus said. “They’re all our type of guys that we want to have in the building and on our football team.”

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