Draft analysis: If RB Saquon Barkley somehow falls, would Bears consider him?
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Part 1 of a 10-part series previewing the NFL Draft and analyzing the Bears’ needs:
Hypothetical question No. 1: If Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, one of the best running-back prospects of his generation, somehow were available with the No. 8 pick, would the Bears draft him?
Hypothetical question No. 2: If it started raining dollar bills, would you go outside and catch them?
Both would be lucky turns. The odds of the former happening, though, seem about as likely as the latter. Regardless of their current roster construction, the Bears would be fools to rule out drafting such a talent. But barring a cataclysmic shift — think Laremy Tunsil, only worse — Barkley will be gone by the time the Bears are on the clock.
Which is fine.
While Jordan Howard’s receiving struggles might make him a less-than-ideal focal point in coach Matt Nagy’s offense, he has proved to be an elite runner. Only the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott and the Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell have rushed for more yards than Howard (2,435) in his two seasons in the NFL. No one else in the top 12 was drafted as low as Howard, a fifth-round pick in 2016.
That makes him cheap, too. Howard has another two years left on his rookie deal. The Bears’ appetite for Howard’s next contract is a different debate. Perhaps it’s telling that general manager Ryan Pace has yet to devote substantial resources to the position, financial or otherwise, in his three years at the helm. He has let Matt Forte walk and selected Howard, Tarik Cohen and Jeremy Langford on the third day of the draft.
If the Bears draft a running back at all this year, it figures to be in the same range and for depth. Despite his dynamic ability, Cohen never will be an every-down back because of his 5-6, 179-pound frame and his swing-for-the-fences style. One-third of his rushes last season went for zero yards or a loss.
Nagy labeled Cohen and Howard as ‘‘good fits’’ as receivers.
‘‘They’re both really good at what they do,’’ he said at the NFL’s annual meetings last month. ‘‘To our offensive staff, as we’re designing plays and trying to find ways to get guys the ball, we’re going to do what fits them best.’’
Barkley is the latest player to buck the trend of running backs as interchangeable commodities. No running backs were drafted in the first round in 2013 or 2014. In the two years before that, only one — bust Trent Richardson — was taken among the first 27 picks. But Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon went among the first 15 in 2015, and Elliott was drafted fourth a year later. Last year, Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey were selected among the first nine.
If the Browns or Giants select Barkley, he’ll become the highest-drafted running back since Reggie Bush went second in 2006. Otherwise, he figures to go in the same spot as Fournette and Elliott — No. 4, where the Browns will be making their second selection.
‘‘He’s special, he’s different,’’ NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. ‘‘He’s all those things.’’
Grading the Bears’ need: Low. The team is returning everyone who had a carry last season — Jordan Howard, Tarik Cohen, Benny Cunningham and fullback Michael Burton. Howard finished sixth in the league with 1,122 rushing yards, 17 yards shy of fourth. His 1,313 yards in 2016 trailed only Ezekiel Elliott.
On the roster: Howard ($647,006 average annual value), Cohen ($758,915), Cunningham ($855,000), Taquan Mizzell ($555,000), Burton ($616,089).
Top five draft prospects:
1. Saquon Barkley, Penn State: Perhaps the best player in the draft, Barkley figures to be picked among the top four.
2. Sony Michel, Georgia: He started only twice last season but still had a ridiculous 1,227 rushing yards on 156 carries.
3. Derrius Guice, LSU: Replacing Leonard Fournette last year, he led the Southeastern Conference with 1,387 rushing yards while battling injury.
4. Ronald Jones II, USC: He hurt his hamstring at the NFL Scouting Combine but was strong in his pro-day makeup Thursday.
5. Nick Chubb, Georgia: He and Michel set the FBS record for most career rushing yards by running-back teammates, surpassing Eric Dickerson and Craig James.
I’m intrigued by: Only four FBS players in history have run for more yards than San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny did last year: Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders, Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, Central Florida’s Kevin Smith and USC’s Marcus Allen. A likely mid-round pick, Penny can return kicks, too. He brought back seven kickoffs and two punts for touchdowns in college.