BOURBONNAIS — Yes, Bears running back Jordan Howard noticed Rams counterpart Todd Gurley’s payday.
Yes, he smiled.
Gurley and the Rams agreed to a four-year, $60 million deal last week. With his $45 million in guaranteed money — the most ever for a running back — Gurley reset the market for a position the NFL has, in recent years, considered fungible.
‘‘It definitely changes the math for running backs,’’ Howard said after the Bears’ practice Friday. ‘‘Running backs, they try to dismiss us. They use us a lot, but they don’t really want to pay us, so they try to dismiss us and not pay us for what we’re worth. They feel like they can get another running back easy, but it’s not that easy.’’
Running backs are being paid an average of $1.36 million, the lowest among position players except for fullbacks and long snappers, according to Spotrac. The average cap hit paid to top-10 running backs was the lowest of any position group but punters and kickers, Pro Football Focus wrote in April.
Howard, who is entering his third season, isn’t eligible for an extension until Jan. 1, 2019, at the earliest. But after posting back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons to start his career, Howard could parlay an outstanding third season into some lofty financial expectations. If the Bears don’t give him an extension, he could hit free agency in March 2020 at age 25 — or be kept on a franchise tag.
Howard shares an agent with Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell, who figures to play under the franchise tag for a second consecutive season. Bell has yet to sign his tender or report to camp. But assuming he does, he’ll hit free agency in March at age 27. He’ll get paid, which is good news for Howard.
‘‘It’s definitely exciting to see where they can reset the running-back market,’’ Howard said. ‘‘Lately, it’s been a little bit down. They haven’t really been respecting running backs. But I feel like running backs are back up on the come up.’’
Howard figures to be, too, if he emerges as a true three-down back in coach Matt Nagy’s system. Nagy said he expects Howard to play on running and passing downs and praised the work he has done to try to improve his hands.
‘‘Running good routes, looking the ball all the way in, making the play come my way,’’ Howard said.
The rushing prowess is already there. As the Bears have started to hold more physical practices, Howard and his blockers have improved their timing.
‘‘I definitely have a better feel for the running game, with the pullers and things like that,’’ Howard said. ‘‘They can actually hit the linemen, so they can get upfield. It’s definitely better for the run game.’’
The running game features some of the same elements (outside zone, inside zone, power schemes) the Bears ran last season, when Howard totaled 1,122 yards on 276 carries. But the Bears are running more out of the shotgun, where quarterback Mitch Trubisky can use the threat of a read-option keeper to force the edge rusher to stay honest. They were successful running from the shotgun last season, and Howard dominated out of that formation at Indiana.
Howard thinks he only can get better.
‘‘I feel like if I keep staying consistent and doing what I’ve got to do, it’s going to keep going up, keep improving,’’ Howard said.
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