The Eagles needed a running back after passing on several options in free agency, and they got one last week when they traded for Jordan Howard. He should be an upgrade over the existing options on the roster. And considering the price, acquiring the 24-year old was a prudent move.
The Eagles parted with only a 2020 sixth-round draft pick – that could become a fifth depending upon Howard’s production – and will pay him only $2.025 million in the final year of his rookie deal. If he walks next season, they stand to receive a compensatory draft pick in return.
The Bears signed free agent Mike Davis last month, even though he had been far less productive than Howard, and they also have the multifaceted Tarik Cohen in their backfield. But smart teams with smart coaches generally don’t unload players for relatively little in return for no reason.
“I’m not really sure,” Howard said Monday during his introductory news conference when asked why the Bears traded him. “They made a decision. They wanted to move on, and I can’t be mad at that or have hard feelings.”
Chicago coach Matt Nagy has said that his system is tailored more toward dual-threat running backs and that he prefers a by-committee approach. But there are parallels to his offense and Doug Pederson’s, and the Eagles coach has similarly spread touches around.
The Eagles likely envision Howard as their first- and second-down option on the ground, much as LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi were two seasons ago. In that role, he should be fine. His addition also shouldn’t preclude the Eagles from drafting another running back later this month, perhaps one more dynamic.
Howard’s number of touches over his first three seasons were relatively the same, but he became less effective in each year. His yards per carry went from 5.2 in his rookie season to 4.2 in his second season and finally to 3.7 last year. While those numbers don’t tell the whole story, they are a fair representation of his performance during that span based on film study.
Howard is a solid north-to-south runner. He has good vision. He typically follows his blocking and hits the hole. The Bears’ run blocking played a role in his first-year success as well as in his second- and third-year struggles. But he lacks elite explosiveness and has become less elusive, for whatever reason. He also hasn’t provided much as a receiver.
Here’s a closer look at Howard, specifically his 2016 and 2018 seasons, and why his production dipped:
North to south
Despite not playing in the first game of his rookie season, Howard rushed for 1,313 yards on 252 carries in 2016. On this split inside zone run, he cut back and ran through an arm tackle.
Howard: “A lot of teams, they didn’t know who I was. So they didn’t really scout me and prepare for me well. And then we had [receiving] options on the outside. In my second year, we had a lot of receiver injuries so they were just loading the box up.”
While Howard’s relative anonymity may have played a part in his immediate success, he was still churning out 100-yard rushing games against divisional opponents by the end of the season. A year later, head coach John Fox was fired and Nagy and his new system were brought in.
Howard: “It was kind of different from what I had been doing before. I knew I was going to have to do more with less. I wasn’t complaining about that because we were winning.”
After carrying the ball 17 times a game in his first two seasons, Howard averaged 15.6 totes a game last year. In his first 11 games of 2018, he averaged just 3.3 yards. He looked hesitant at times. The blocking wasn’t ideal on this run up the middle, but Howard could have gotten positive yardage. Instead, he moved laterally and was dropped for a loss.
Howard did improve by the end of the season and, in his last five regular-season games, averaged 4.5 yards a rush.
Howard’s breakaway numbers (rushes of 15-plus yards) were solid during his rookie year. He had 19 15-plus rushes for 485 yards, according to Pro Football Focus, and his percentage of yards on breakaway runs (36.9) was 10th out of 62 qualifying running backs.
Typically, a tailback will need to make at least one defender miss before getting to the second or third level. Howard slipped the unblocked safety here and picked up 23 yards.
Howard had only 10 15-plus rushes for 219 yards last season. His breakaway percentage (23.4) ranked 38th out of 61 running backs. For comparison, the Eagles’ Josh Adams was 16th (36.6), Corey Clement was 22nd (32.4) and Wendell Smallwood was last (4.1).
Howard, 24, doesn’t have an explosive second gear. He didn’t run the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, but he was timed at 4.59 seconds at Indiana’s pro day. In the Bears’ playoff loss to the Eagles, Howard gained six yards on this cutback run, but there was the potential for more.
While Howard was 14th out of 62 qualifying running backs in yards after contact in 2016, his average (2.98) was comparable to his next two seasons (2.52 and 2.74) when he was in the bottom half (42 out of 67 and 37 out of 61) of the league.
Outside the numbers
Howard won’t be mistaken for Gale Sayers, but he can turn the corner, if need be, and can cut against the grain as he did here for eight yards.
The large majority of Howard’s runs with Chicago came between the tackles. When asked to run outside on stretch or zone plays, he sometimes had trouble turning his hips or opted instead to bump toward the sideline.
The blocking on this run wasn’t perfect, but Howard had the opportunity to cut back and get north. He didn’t have the acceleration to beat the end to the corner and was taken down behind the line.
Howard got the handoff with the quarterback under center much more in 2016 (200 times) than in 2018 (111). While he wasn’t as dangerous from the shotgun (7.1 yards per in 2016 vs. 4.1 in 2018), he still had more success when he lined up offset from the quarterback.
Howard: “I’m comfortable with both. [It’s] a different change-up for the defense to account for, and [there] are different ways to attack.”
For what it’s worth, PFF had the Bears ranked ninth in the NFL in run blocking in 2016, eighth in 2017, and 13th in 2018. It’s a subjective enterprise, grading offensive linemen, but Howard appeared to have more holes to run through in his first season.
This long gain against the Lions, when he had space to get up the field, was emblematic of his 2016 campaign.
Howard had 26 negative-yard rushes in 2016 vs. 18 in 2018. On many of those occasions, defenders penetrated through the Bears line and there was little he could do.
On paper, the Eagles’ line should be an upgrade over the Bears'. Quarterback Carson Wentz and the Eagles’ passing game, supplemented by the addition of receiver DeSean Jackson, should also keep defenses honest and from stacking the box.
Howard: “It’s definitely going to help the running game because they won’t be able to load the box up. With [Jackson], they’re definitely going to have a safety over top because he has a lot of speed.”
Howard’s yards per carry have declined, but his touchdowns haven’t. He has scored six, nine and nine rushing touchdowns over his three seasons. Twenty-three of his 24 scores, which were tied for sixth in the NFL over that span, have come from inside the 20-yard line.
There might be less room to run, but Howard has a nose for the end zone.
On this 18-yard touchdown run — one of the best runs of his career — Howard showed vision, burst and the type of physicality that could endear him to Eagles fans.
Like some running backs, Howard was a more productive rusher when he had 20-plus carries in a game. He averaged 4.5 yards in 12 20-plus-carry games and 4.2 yards when he had fewer than 20.
But he averaged more than a touchdown a game in 20-plus-carry games (14 in 12 games) and scored only 10 in 35 games in which he carried fewer than 20 times. In Pederson’s three seasons as head coach, there have been only four instances of a running back rushing more than 20 times in a game.
Howard: "I feel like every running back just needs a few touches early in the game to get a feel for a game. But I’m just coming here to play whatever role they need me to help the team win games.
Howard mentioned Monday that he took pride in his pass blocking. Despite this apparent skill, the Bears didn’t utilize him much on third down. Why? Because he, quite simply, couldn’t catch the ball consistently.
Howard: “My first two years, I struggled catching the ball. I admit that. But last year, I worked on it a lot and didn’t drop any passes. I just wasn’t really featured.”
He had eight drops in his rookie season — easily the most among NFL running backs — and six the following season. On this play in 2016, Howard dropped what would have likely been six points.
But he worked on his receiving skills and, as he noted, didn’t have a single drop last season. The hard work paid off in the Bears’ first three games as he caught 10 passes for 75 yards, including this 18-yard grab.
But Howard had only 10 catches for 67 yards the rest of the way as Cohen became the more featured pass-catching back.
Chicago used Howard a lot in short-yardage situations, and for the most part, he was effective. He converted 70.6 percent of his 1- or 2-yard opportunities on either third or fourth down. In nasty, December conditions two seasons ago, Howard was good on 4 of 5 short-yardage chances and ran for two touchdowns.
Howard wasn’t as effective in 2018. He was only 10-for-16 on short-yardage plays, and his 62.5 percent conversion rate was below the league average (65 pct.). He has lost only five fumbles over his career, but he coughed one up on the 1-yard line in a loss to the Dolphins.
Nevertheless, Howard can be tough to bring down, as he showed on this 1-yard churner last season.
Howard: “I describe my playing style as being rugged, physical. I definitely like setting a tone. I feel like I’m a blue-collar player.”
In blue-collar Philadelphia, that might be enough.