Bears RB David Montgomery takes center stage in backfield — with high stakes

Bears running back David Montgomery is playing in the NFL’s best rushing attack by far, but he’s the only one who isn’t putting up splashy numbers in it.

While Montgomery hasn’t voiced a syllable of frustration, it’s really bad timing as he heads into free agency at the end of the season. These remaining seven games are his last chance to earn a big contract, whether that’s an extension with the Bears or a restart elsewhere.

Montgomery, fellow running back Khalil Herbert and quarterback Justin Fields have roughly the same number of rushes, but Fields is second in the league at 7.2 yards per carry and Herbert is tied for fourth at six while Montgomery has managed just 3.8. Fourteen NFL running backs are averaging 4.8 or more yards per rush.

Herbert’s hip injury hurts the offense — Montgomery called it a “super big loss” — and will keep him out until at least Week 16 against the Bills. But it also almost certainly will mean more carries for Montgomery starting with the game against the Falcons on Sunday.

The Bears are going to use rookie Trestan Ebner in the running game, but it probably won’t be the same split of carries they had between Montgomery and Herbert. Montgomery got 115 carries to Herbert’s 89 in games when both played. It’s reasonable to expect 75% or more of the running back carries to go to Montgomery against the Falcons.

Bears coaches swear by Montgomery’s pass-blocking, and that’s been extremely valuable this season. There’s a significant dropoff in that department from him to any of the other running backs. He also is universally respected throughout Halas Hall for his tenacity and toughness.

But blocking and grit typically aren’t the main measurements of a running back when teams weigh how much to spend. It’s the most difficult position at which to get paid, and running backs have to be game changers like Derrick Henry or Jonathan Taylor to hit jackpot.

It usually comes down to yardage more than anything. At 434 yards, Montgomery ranks 30th in the league. He also has two rushing touchdowns and has caught 15 passes for 150 yards.

Whereas Herbert is second in the NFL at 1.91 yards over expected per rush according to NFL Next Gen Stats, Montgomery is getting .03 yards fewer than expected on his runs.

General manager Ryan Poles was asked last month if the shared backfield dampened his view on Montgomery as part of the Bears’ future and said no.

“David has run really, really well — he runs hard,” Poles said, highlighting a distinction between Montgomery’s power game and Herbert’s shiftier, speedier style. “One of my favorite players on the team [because of] how he approaches the game and attacks it on Sundays.”

He has gotten a career-low 12.8 carries per game after averaging 16.2 before this season.

Montgomery’s 122 yards on 15 carries against the Packers in Week 2 was his best game of the season, but he hasn’t hit 70 in a game outside of that night. In 54 games, including one playoff appearance, he has topped 100 eight times and had under 40 in 16 games.

Even though most of his career was in Matt Nagy’s run-deficient offense, that’s a sufficient sample size on Montgomery for teams to evaluate. The 3.8 yards per carry he’s averaging this season is a hair below the 3.9 he averaged over his first three.

The upside for Montgomery is that there’s still time to make his case for a contract. A lot can change in seven games, and the Bears seem inclined to remain reliant on the run. If he averages 81 per game the rest of the way — an ambitious-but-possible goal — he will have his second 1,000-yard season.

If he’s bulldozing defenses, the Bears will keep the ball in his hands. This should be the best chance he’s ever had to show what he can do.

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