‘The main guy’: What will Jordan Howard become in the Bears’ new offense?

The quarterback inside Bears coach Matt Nagy can’t be contained. His inner gunslinger must throw.

So at times during practice, Nagy will fire passes to his players, with the idea that certain players need the extra attention.

“He throws the ball to me himself,” running back Jordan Howard said. “He helps me work on my [catching].”

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Bears running backs Benny Cunningham (left) and Jordan Howard (right) work on a drill during the Bears' offseason practice Wednesday at Halas Hall. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

With Nagy’s first offseason program nearing its end, Howard seems to be fitting right in, when it wasn’t long ago that he was considered a bad fit for Nagy’s offense.

The truth is Nagy always had a place in mind for Howard — “He already said I’m going to be the main guy,” Howard said — and the Bears never had any real interest in trading him.

Right now, the Bears need Howard. The question is for how long? That answer will emerge this season with Nagy modernizing the Bears’ offensive approach.

Coming off consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons for two bad teams, Howard arguably is the only sure thing about a Bears offense that’s undergoing an extreme makeover for quarterback Mitch Trubisky. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Bears leaned on Howard in the early going as Trubisky settles in.

But is there room in Nagy’s offense for a traditional bell-cow running back?

“He’s proven that he’s done that, so that’s for sure,” Nagy said. “In this offense, it’s more game specific, as to whether or not you need that.”

So, yes and no. It all depends.

Howard, though, is entering his third season, meaning it’s an important year for him individually. After 2018, Howard will have one year remaining on his rookie contract.

General manager Ryan Pace signed left tackle Charles Leno Jr. to an extension during the training camp of his fourth season. The same might happen with nose tackle Eddie Goldman and safety Adrian Amos, two defensive starters who are in the fourth years of their rookie contracts.

A productive season from Howard this year could result in a lucrative extension. Then again, it also could reveal how much the Bears truly value running backs in today’s pass-happy NFL.

The Eagles featured three running backs during their Super Bowl run last season, while Nagy and the Chiefs drafted Kareem Hunt in the third round last year and turned him into the NFL’s leading rusher in his first season.

Criticisms of Howard typically start and end with his dropped passes. It’s why Tarik Cohen is expected to have a major role in Nagy’s offense and also why Howard’s name emerged in trade rumors.

Hunt made 53 catches for 455 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie last season for Nagy. In two seasons, Howard has 52 receptions for 423 yards and one score.

“We’re pretty different, but coach knows how to work with everybody,” Howard said.

That said, the Bears still want Howard to improve as a receiver. Consider it a goal for Nagy. Running backs coach Charles London said Howard needs to improve his hand placement, concentration and hand-eye coordination.

Howard’s talents as a runner, though, shouldn’t be disregarded. He isn’t the fastest back, but he’s patient and powerful. He also excelled out of shotgun formations and in zone schemes that Nagy will feature in his offense.

The arrivals of receivers Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Anthony Miller and tight end Trey Burton should benefit Howard as much as Trubisky.

According to the NFL’s “Next Generation” statistics, Howard faced eight players in the box on 43.12 percent of his 276 rushing attempts last season.

Jonathan Stewart (Panthers) and Leonard Fournette (Jaguars) were the only primary starters who faced a higher percentage.

“Definitely a sign of respect,” Howard said.

But that respect is merely a starting point. Howard has to prove himself all over again in a new offense. He fits right now, but he’ll need to catch more passes if he’s going to catch on for the long term.

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