If Jordan Howard Wants to Stay in Chicago, He’ll Need to Improve in Passing Game

| July 2nd, 2018

Jordan Howard has surpassed all expectations as a fifth round pick. After a series of injuries gave him an opportunity just a few games into his career, he grabbed the job and literally ran with it. 2400 yards and 15 touchdowns later, Howard is firmly entrenched as one of the best runners in the NFL.

Yet for all his excellence on the ground, there remains a nagging doubt about Howard because of his limitations in the passing game. Fans remember his dropped touchdown against Atlanta in Week 1 last year, and he has only 423 receiving yards through 2 seasons. Catching the ball is an important part of any running back’s job in the modern-day NFL, and especially in the new offense head coach Matt Nagy is mostly importing from Kansas City. So today I want to look a little bit deeper at Howard’s impact – or lack thereof – in the passing game and what that might mean for his future (I’d like to give a special thanks to DBB reader Evantonio for this idea).

Let’s start with the basics, looking at how Howard has done in the passing game. I’m going to compare him to a few different groupings of players:

  • Bell cow running backs who are focal points of the offense and rarely leave the field – Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliot, LeSean McCoy, Le’Veon Bell.
  • Situational running backs known for their running – Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount, Carlos Hyde.
  • Kansas City running backs in the Reid offense – Kareem Hunt, Jamaal Charles.

Groups are sorted by color coding in the table below. Charles’ data is only for the years when Reid was in Kansas City (2013-16), and drop figures are courtesy of Player Profiler, which only had them for 2017.

A few thoughts:

  • Howard doesn’t come close to matching the other bell cow backs through the air in terms of volume, efficiency or drops.
  • The air profile that Howard does match quite well is that of other run-heavy backs like Ajayi, Blount, and Hyde. He actually catches a lower rate of his passes than those players by a good margin, but is similar to them in terms of target frequency, yards per target, and drop percentage. That’s not to say that Howard is a bad player-all of these are solid NFL players-but it does limit his value. All of those players have settled into situational roles and not every-down duty, and I think Howard is probably destined for the same fate unless he can improve as a pass catcher.
  • Hunt and Charles are the lead backs the Chiefs have used under Andy Reid (and LeSean McCoy was the lead back his last 4 years in Philadelphia). Notice they all get used through the air far more frequently than Howard has, and produce efficiently in that regard, in line with other top bell cow backs around the league.
  • I find the Carlos Hyde comparison interesting. Howard is a better runner than Hyde, but actually pretty similar as a pass catcher. When Kyle Shanahan arrived in San Francisco last year, he installed a passing attack that incorporates the running back more, and Hyde’s usage in the passing game increased tremendously. He saw 88 targets (5.5 per game), dropped an astounding 14 of them (16%), and had his least efficient pass catching season both in catch % (67%) and yards per target (4.0). Coincidentally, Hyde was allowed to leave in free agency. If Howard sees something similar happen as he gets more involved in the passing game, I think it’s safe to say he won’t be in Chicago beyond his rookie contract.
  • I do wonder if Howard’s low yards per target value is a function of 2017’s comically inept offense. Tarik Cohen averaged only 5 yards per target last year, a number that I expect to rise to be more in line with the other backs on this table in 2018. Hopefully Howard sees a similar spike in production, though it’s worth noting he was only at 3.9 yards per target last year.
  • One non-passing nugget I found on Player Profiler: through two years, Howard has averaged 6.0 yards per carry against nickel fronts, one of the best figures in the NFL. He had less than 20% of his carries against those fronts in 2017, but should see them much more often in this new offense. I am very excited to see him carry the ball in 2018.

There were rumors the Bears considered trading Jordan Howard this offseason because of his limits in the passing game. He’s still a Bear, but that doesn’t mean those concerns have disappeared. If Howard can’t find a way to both be more involved as a pass catcher and become a more efficient weapon through the air, he is likely going to end up as a platoon running back.

To his credit, Howard has admitted this is a problem and is working diligently with coaches to improve. Bears fans can only hope the hard work pays off.