Khalil Herbert has early lead as Bears' RB1, but battle will ensue

LAKE FOREST, Ill. – David Montgomery’s decision to leave the Chicago Bears for the Detroit Lions this offseason sparked major change for the league’s top rushing offense.

One season after the Bears averaged 177.3 rushing yards per game – a byproduct of a struggling passing game – there will be a new RB1. The early outlook pegged Khalil Herbert as the strongest candidate for the job after a standout second season when he led all NFL rushers at 5.7 yards per carry.

That was before the Bears signed D'Onta Foreman and Travis Homer in free agency. Chicago later spent a fourth-round pick on Roschon Johnson, who backed up Atlanta Falcons’ first-rounder Bijan Robinson at Texas.

“You know how things go in the NFL now,” Herbert said. “They’re doing things by committee. You need one, two, three really good guys that really carry the rock and there be no drop-off. I feel like as a group, we’ve got a really strong group. We’ve got guys who can take it to the house at any given moment.”

The competition, which includes 2022 sixth-round pick Trestan Ebner, is well under way. Herbert has been taking the first-team reps during OTAs and will continue to do so before the Bears break after mandatory minicamp.

Once training camp starts, the real competition will begin. As running backs coach David Walker said this spring, “all bets are off” as to who will emerge as the leader of the backfield.

“No one has earned a seat in that room yet, and they’re all going to earn their seats from what we do now until August whatever, whenever that third preseason game is,” Walker said. “So that’s the good thing and they know it. That’s been communicated to them.”

Chicago’s rushing offense was bolstered by contributions from quarterback Justin Fields, who finished 60 yards shy of setting the single-season QB rushing record (1,143 yards) in his second season. Montgomery was the Bears’ second-leading rusher (801 yards), followed by Herbert (731 yards), who said he’s added five pounds this offseason after playing at 212 pounds in 2022.

The Bears’ goal in building a versatile backfield with multiple rushers capable of being three-down backs is to help take some of the burden off Fields, who injured his non-throwing shoulder last year while running out of bounds in a loss at Atlanta. Fields still produced on the ground while dealing with what he classified as “heavy legs,” including rushing for 178 yards in a loss to the Miami Dolphins, the most ever by a quarterback in the Super Bowl era.

“We talked about it last year with Justin in terms of the run game,” Eberflus said. “Run it when we need to. When we're down in the red zone third down we might need it at that point during those critical situations of the game. So that's what he's going to do.”

The RB1 competition will be the team’s biggest position battle in training camp.

“They’re just all getting to learn what they’re supposed to do, and that way when we put pads on sometime in August … it’ll all iron itself out,” offensive coordinator Luke Getsy said. “As long as the guys feel really good about their responsibilities in all three phases ­— run game, pass game and protection game — that’s the most important thing we can get done right now, is to make sure their brains are ready to roll.”

Foreman came to the Bears after notching the first fully healthy season of his five-year career in 2022, rushing for 914 yards on 203 carries upon taking over the Carolina Panthers’ backfield after Christian McCaffrey was traded in Week 7. According to Next Gen Stats, Foreman gained more rushing yards than expected on 49% of his carries last season, which was the second-highest rate among running backs with a minimum of 100 carries.

Herbert was fourth on that list and outgained his expected rushing yards on 46.9% of his carries.

Another priority for Chicago was seeking to improve the pass protection around Fields with its core of running backs. It’s a skill Homer excelled at during his time with the Seattle Seahawks while Herbert said he did boxing training during the offseason to get better in that area.

The addition of Johnson is where things could get interesting. The lack of wear and tear (Johnson had five starts in 47 games at Texas) could bode well for his longevity at the position. The Bears lauded his leadership during the draft process and willingness to fill any role.

Johnson converted to running back after being recruited to Texas as a dual-threat quarterback. He ended his career with the Longhorns with at least 400 yards and five rushing touchdowns in each of his four seasons. The way he generates yards stands out to Bears coaches, too. Johnson averaged 3.96 yards after contact per rush on 93 carries last season.

His skills as a four-phase special teamer were a major draw, too. While still early, the idea that Johnson could one day play his way into the RB1 role is a possibility worth acknowledging.

“When a guy excels and ascends like that, we applaud that in our room,” special teams coordinator Richard Hightower said. “I can’t stop him from being the No. 1 back, but I hope that whatever he is for the Bears, he’s everything that we drafted him for."