Bears have decent 1-2 punch at running back, but room for improvement
There wasn't a lot to be excited about with the Bears' offense in 2021. The run game was something of a bright spot, though it ranked only 14th among 32 NFL teams.
Lead back David Montgomery put together another nice season, which was abbreviated by a knee injury. He ended his season with 849 yards and 7 touchdowns on 225 carries. He likely would've had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons if the injury hadn't sidelined him for four weeks midway through the year.
It was easy for defenses to key in on the rushing attack when the passing attack was among the worst in the NFL. More help on the offensive line is always going to help the running backs, too. The Bears line was average at best in 2021.
Positives: Montgomery isn't going anywhere. He remains on his rookie contract for one more season. He could be a target for an extension. Montgomery has improved every season. He has missed time here and there, but largely avoided major injury.
Rookie Khalil Herbert appeared to be a great late-round find in the 2021 draft. He showed he's worth keeping around as the No. 2 behind Montgomery. Veteran Damien Williams had some nice moments, but largely disappeared during the second half of the season.
Nobody knows what offensive coordinator Luke Getsy's offense will look like next season. Head coach Matt Eberflus comes from a Colts team that put a heavy emphasis on the run game. That could bode well for Montgomery. If the Bears want to lean on their defense and play mistake-free football on offense, Montgomery stands to benefit.
Negatives: Such a strategy worked for the Colts because Jonathan Taylor averages 5.3 yards per carry for his career. Montgomery's 3.9 yards per attempt is not quite on that level. But Matt Nagy never committed to the run game for long.
Tarik Cohen's situation is much more uncertain. He's under contract for two more seasons, but he hasn't played since Week 3 of 2020 due to an ACL injury. Releasing Cohen this offseason would save money against the salary cap and would let the Bears cut their losses after Pace extended Cohen just a week before he injured his knee.
It probably comes down to whether Cohen is healthy and if he can still be the player he used to be. After a year-and-a-half without football, that's a fair concern.
Defining moments: Montgomery had two 100-yard games -- the season opener against the Rams and Week 4 against Detroit, which was Justin Fields' first home start. A knee injury against Detroit gave Montgomery a scare, but he missed only four games.
Herbert starred during the four-game stretch that Montgomery missed. He averaged 86 rushing yards per game over that period, including 100 yards against Tampa Bay in Week 7.
Contract status: Under Ryan Pace, Montgomery was the type of homegrown player the Bears liked to extend. Who knows how that thinking might change under new GM Ryan Poles. Montgomery's production is comparable to Joe Mixon's when the Bengals gave Mixon a four-year, $48 million contract extension in 2020. For a quality running back on his second contract, it's probably going to cost $12 million per year.
Herbert has three more years on his rookie contract. Cohen's contract has two more years, but is cuttable. Williams is a free agent next month. Ryan Nall is a restricted free agent.
Grade: B. When Montgomery is healthy, he's among the top running backs in the NFL. Herbert showed promise as a No. 2, but then the Bears shied away from using him when Montgomery returned from injury. The Williams signing had limited impact. Cohen's continued battle with injury is concerning.
The plan: With Montgomery and Herbert, the Bears have a nice one-two punch. Montgomery and his camp should be pushing for an extension this summer. He has probably earned a pay raise. The Bears will want a reliable third option, too. That could be Williams or someone cheaper of a similar mold. Nall will stick around for his special teams versatility but likely won't see much time at running back.
As for Cohen, stick with him for the time being and see what he looks like when he returns to the field. If he's a shell of his former self, the Bears will have little choice but to cut him and move on.