By the close of the 2019 NFL season, twelve running backs were able to accumulate 265 or more total touches. Chicago Bears rookie running back David Montgomery was part of this group. The workload, amongst the heaviest in the NFL, was also one of the least productive on a per touch basis. Montgomery is seen now as a guy who can’t - and won’t - get the job done. A case can be made to throw out such a subpar season from a rookie back and look to the future.
From the table above, we can see a dataset of some of the highest touch running backs in the NFL. We can then take Montgomery’s rankings against his fellow 265 or more touch group and his ranking amongst all running backs.
Out of the eight parameters, Montgomery comes in as worst or second-worst of the group in eleven of twelve categories. Montgomery’s rush attempts carried him into this grouping to begin with, but his 242 rushing attempts were almost 91% of his total touch workload. That very skewed rushing to receiving work is an immediate example of how Montgomery failed in 2019. Fantasy points are not created equally when it comes to rushing and receiving production. The complete lack of receiving workload is a killer in the modern fantasy landscape for running backs. Players such as Derrick Henry or Nick Chubb can afford to have sub-300-yard receiving years. Unlike Montgomery, they can produce for fantasy players because they were first and second in rushing yards in 2019.The main issue of his inability to breakthrough in the receiving game comes from his backfield teammate. Fellow Bears running back Tarik Cohen will hurt Montgomery's ceiling while still under contract in Chicago. Cohen was one of only four running backs to eclipse 100 targets in 2019 and has 70 or more in all three seasons.
Running back is difficult to judge, as most of what the player produces is mostly not up to him. Montgomery’s 25th ranked offensive line had difficulty creating opportunities for him to succeed. The Bears in 2019 were the 29th ranked offense in points scored, averaging just over 17 points a game. Couple that low points output while also being the 29th ranked team in total yards and the picture becomes clearer. Fantasy players love touchdowns but Montgomery only produced seven, third-fewest of the top twelve backs in total touches. A positive can be spun from that, as the Bears scored only 30 all season with Montgomery accounted for 23% of them. That poor offensive line really had a tough time in the red zone; he was able to convert only 20% of his 35 red zone touches for scores. There was a focus by head coach Matt Nagy to use him in high-value situations, as 18 of his 33 red zone carries from within the five-yard line. The offensive line could also be blamed for a feeble sub-two yards before contact, making his 28 broken tackles all the more impressive. Nagy also used Montgomery inconsistently, as in only seven games Montgomery was in for 40 or more snaps, seeing less than 60% of all running back snaps for the year. If Montgomery was on the field, the Bears used him, touching the ball on 42% of the 625 snaps he saw.
The schedule is also an important factor for backs to be used effectively. Based on cbssports.com defensive rankings, Chicago’s 2020 opponents are the fourth easiest against the run of all NFL schedules. An early-season cushion of weeks one through three opponents, the Lions, Giants, and Falcons, is a soft start for Montgomery. Only two top-five defenses versus running backs will be faced in 2020, week five versus the Buccaneers, and week eight against the Saints.
A conversation can be had that the most significant hurdle to Montgomery’s success, is that of how well the signal-caller for the Bears in 2020 will be. A repeat as the 29th ranked team in both points and yards does not equal fantasy success. A reason could be that the Bears were the 24th best team in terms of red zone touchdown conversion, only converting on 52% of all red zone trips. For those who wish to take stock in Montgomery, they want quarterback Mitchell Trubisky to win the camp quarterback battle. At 26 years old, Trubisky still has room to develop in what will be his fourth NFL season. Some will forget that Trubisky was on a QB1 fantasy pace in 14 games in 2018, and will only think of his dismal 2017 and 2019 campaigns instead. Trubisky is facing a 31-year-old journeyman and surprise Super Bowl winner Nick Foles. The Jaguars, his one-year employer, didn’t see enough in Foles to keep him around to back up for them, is now apparently competition for Trubisky to NFL fans. While both admittedly mediocre or worse in the passing game, Trubisky does bring dynamism on the ground. His 2018 campaign saw Trubisky rush for 421 yards, fifth-most of all quarterbacks that season. Having a mobile backfield would be to the benefit of all involved. A quarterback who makes plays with his legs, along with a bruiser and receiving backfield tandem, could pay off very well for the Bears. This all hinges on Nagy, who has overseen team scoring performances of 9th and 29th in his two seasons as head coach for Chicago.
There are the hallmarks of an effective offense that can be to Montgomery’s benefit. A mobile quarterback, with receivers Allen Robinson and Anthony Miller who showed signs of life last season, are certainly enough to prevent opposing defenses from stacking the box. You then throw in a backfield with options to how a play will be run while Montgomery and Cohen are on the field together. Montgomery has become a pass for many a fantasy player, and that mentality in just his second season is a complete mistake.
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