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Was last season’s output just the beginning for Chicago Bears RB David Montgomery?

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Khalil Mack

Chicago Bears linebacker Khalil Mack (52) and teammates warm up during training camp at Halas Hall in Lake Forest on July 28, 2021.

The Bears have their nose tackle back and Eddie Goldman couldn't be happier to be past the COVID-19 opt-out year as he rejoins teammates.

The Chicago Bears welcomed fans to Halas Hall on Thursday morning for their practice in front of a crowd since the summer of 2019. The energy of the session was obvious.

As the Bears continues progressing through training camp, the Tribune is taking a look at each position group. Today: running backs.

Currently on roster: 7

Projected on final roster: 3-4

Roster locks: David Montgomery and Tarik Cohen

Good bets: Damien Williams

On the bubble: Ryan Nall

Practice squad candidates: Khalil Herbert, Artavis Pierce and C.J. Marable

Biggest offseason developments

Running backs coach Charles London left to become the quarterbacks coach for the Atlanta Falcons. … London was replaced by Michael Pitre, who spent the last three seasons as the running backs coach at Oregon State. … Veteran Damien Williams signed a one-year, $1.125 million deal. … The Bears used a sixth-round pick on Virginia Tech’s Khalil Herbert.

What to like

David Montgomery’s official NFL breakthrough came down the stretch of his second season with the driven running back making the most of his increased opportunities late in the year. In the Bears’ six regular-season games after Thanksgiving, Montgomery totaled 824 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns. Included in that stretch were a 57-yard run on his first carry against the Green Bay Packers in Week 12 and an 80-yard touchdown dash two weeks later against the Houston Texans.

Montgomery’s vision, contact balance and toughness were all on display during that final six-week stretch. He also benefited from midseason revisions to the offensive line that provided needed stability up front.

Still, even with the confidence built from that closing stretch and a No. 5 individual NFL ranking in rushing yards for the season (1,070), Montgomery charged into his offseason feeling unfulfilled and motivated.

“It wasn’t enough for me last year,” he said, “just knowing the untapped potential I had within myself.”

Montgomery continues to establish himself as a tone-setting leader and has expressed a desire to become even more vocal and demanding with teammates.

“(I want to) be able to stand behind what I say and allow my words to carry a lot of strength when I speak,” Montgomery said. “That’s just gaining trust with everybody and doing all the right things right all the time.

“You can’t be a half-assed leader. You’ve got to be a full-on leader and let the guys around you know you’re here for the greater good of the team at all times.”

The Chicago Bears were without a few key players like Akiem Hicks and Eddie Jackson on Thursday as they opened the gates at Halas Hall to allow in fans for the first time and only a small group attended.

That’s music to the coaching staff’s ears, of course. There’s also growing optimism inside Halas Hall that Montgomery’s ascent is only just beginning. The 24-year-old back revealed recently he spent a chunk of his offseason refining his running mechanics as a means to gain speed. The dividends of that training remain to be seen. It will also be up to Matt Nagy to establish a greater commitment to the run.

Still, as much as any player on the Bears roster, Montgomery is set up for a big year and hopes his production can catalyze team success.

“I’m just ready for the next step.” he said during OTAs in June. “As far as this team and the expectations I have for it and for me, the ceiling is as high as it could ever be.”

Biggest question

What can the Bears squeeze out of Tarik Cohen this season?

Cohen signed a three-year extension worth $17.25 million last September, but then tore the ACL ligament in his right knee while making a fair catch on a punt return a week later. That put an abrupt end to the running back’s fourth season and sent him into a demanding rehabilitation process. It also raised new questions into just how extensive a role Cohen will retain in Nagy’s evolving offense.

Cohen had only 20 offensive touches for 115 yards in his three games last season. That came after a disappointing 2019 campaign in which he totaled 669 yards from scrimmage on 64 carries and 79 receptions.

The Bears still love Cohen’s explosiveness and believe he can be an incredibly valuable chess piece in a versatile offense. But training camp and the preseason will provide important glimpses into where he’s at physically and how he will blend back as both a ball carrier and, even more so, a pass catcher.

By all accounts, Cohen’s recovery progress has been encouraging. But he was placed on the physically-unable-to-perform list to open training camp as the team remains cautious with his return.

Said general manager Ryan Pace: “It allows us to bring him along at the right rate. He’s been working his tail off. He’s been here every single day grinding. It just allows us to take our time as he continues to rehab.”

Cohen was a first-team All-Pro as a punt returner in 2018 and finished second in the league in return average in 2019. His greatest value to the Bears may still come in that role. Still, after his season-ending injury a year ago, it will be interesting to see whether the Bears alter his special teams duties.

Fresh face

Damien Williams opted out of the 2020 season, citing his mother’s battle with cancer as the primary reason for his heightened caution. Yet after a season away, Williams showed up for the Bears OTAs at Halas Hall in June with a major adrenaline rush.

“Being at home and watching it all, it really made me feel like this is something I want to do as long as possible,” Williams said. “Until the wheels fall off.”

The Las Vegas Raiders former pass rusher remains one of the biggest defensive stars in the NFL

The last meaningful game Williams played was Super Bowl LIV for the Kansas City Chiefs, a championship triumph in which he ran for 104 yards, including the game-sealing 38-yard touchdown in the final 2 minutes. Williams also scored the Chiefs’ go-ahead touchdown less than a minute-and-a-half earlier, a 5-yard reception from Patrick Mahomes that was one of his four catches in the game.

Williams’ burst and versatility should be easy for Nagy and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor to utilize. In seeking another weapon for their backfield this spring, the Bears took long looks at veteran free agents Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida, but ultimately felt Williams’ quickness and well-roundedness set him apart.

Williams, meanwhile, said he was drawn to the Bears’ system, seeing similarities between Nagy’s offense and the Andy Reid version he was comfortable with in Kansas City. He has visions of replicating his 2019 production with the Chiefs when he averaged 65 yards from scrimmage and scored seven touchdowns in 11 regular-season games. His big-play potential should add an exciting dynamic to the backfield.

You should know

Khalil Herbert’s best chance to carve out a role as a rookie may come on special teams.

The sixth-round pick out of Virginia Tech will get his chances in preseason action to show what he can do as a ball carrier, of course. But he will also factor into the Bears’ competition at kick returner after leading the ACC last fall with a 26.9-yards per return average. Herbert also has extensive experience on special teams coverage units as well.

“I take a lot of pride in special teams.” he said on draft weekend. “That’s one of the biggest things we pride ourselves on at Virginia Tech. I feel like I can help in any aspect.”

Quote of note

“When you look at where David has been the last couple of years, getting him the football is a good thing. He can make a lot of people miss who aren’t blocked. He can make guys miss who are blocked. For us, when you’re able to get into that fourth quarter and you have the lead and you can hand the ball off to David Montgomery that’s a good thing. Unfortunately we haven’t been in that situation enough in the past two years. So it has limited him a little bit with his carries. … At the same time if he’s running the ball well and we’re doing great with the O-line, let’s get after it.” — Nagy on his quest to increase Montgomery’s workload this season

Big number

25

The Bears’ ranking last season in rushing yardage, a very small step up from their No. 27 ranked rushing attack in 2019. The Bears averaged 102.9 rushing yards per game and 4.2 yards per rush last season, still struggling to consistently commit to the running game. Internally, much bigger things are being talked about for 2021. But for fans and analysts, it’s a see-it-to-believe-it situation.

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