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Whether you prefer to follow the finances, factor in the fit or ideally both, it appears the Bears signed former Seahawks RB Mike Davis as part of their Jordan Howard replacement plan.
We realize that's not a popular observation around these parts, but Ryan Pace opted to give Davis a reported two-year deal worth up to $7 million with incentives. No, it's not a bank-breaker by any stretch, but relatively speaking it'll easily make him the most expensive back in Chicago's stable.
Howard, who was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for a 2020 sixth-rounder that can become a fifth, will earn $2 million in the final year of his rookie deal, thanks to a performance escalator. Free agent Benny Cunningham, who actually first arrived in Chicago with receiving production similar to Davis', signed a one-year, $1 million deal last offseason to return in the first year in Matt Nagy's scheme.
If Davis was tabbed as Cunningham's replacement, why would he get 600 percent more than Cunningham signed for in an offseason when the Bears were basically printing money, not restructuring contracts and still shopping at the bargain bins?
That's the financial argument for Davis being more than merely a depth and special-teams addition. Now, the more fun part — what he brings to the field.
"Davis is a tough runner who can catch out of the backfield," one personnel man texted us Tuesday of the signing. "Just have to stay healthy."
Howard certainly checks the first box above as a tough and determined runner, and entering Year 4 the next game he misses because of injury will be his first, so clearly Davis isn't an upgrade in that department.
But Davis is a vastly more effective and experienced receiver, and it should be clear to anyone paying attention that finding a "hybrid" back is the Bears' top priority in fixing their run game. Nagy pretty much said so himself two weeks ago at the combine.
"When you're dealing with running backs for us, in this offense, you want to be able to have a guy that has really good vision that can make guys miss," Nagy said. "And at the same time, there's that balance of being a hybrid, being able to make things happen in the pass game too, but yet to where you're not one-dimensional."
The Bears ran 55 percent of the time when Howard was on the field last season, the second-highest rate in the league, according to NFL's Next Gen Stats. Conversely, with Tarik Cohen in the game, they ran only 37 percent, the fourth-lowest rate.
Howard is a really talented runner with the kind of plus vision that Nagy cited, and he's proven he can hold up while handling a big workload. But in addition to not being as quick or nifty as Davis (5-foot-9 and 217 pounds) and lacking the newcomer's track record in the passing game, Howard's stamina and better-with-a-lather style doesn't matter as much in Nagy's system — "not an offense where you're going to get 25-30 carries," the coach said.
Davis, who was actually drafted in the fourth round in 2015, one year before the Bears found Howard in Round 5, had two 30-plus catch seasons at South Carolina prior to joining the NFL. After failing to break through in San Francisco, he carved out a valuable niche in Seattle, where he caught 49 passes for 345 yards (7.0 YPC) in 21 combined games.
Last season, easily Davis' best, he was among the NFL's most reliable pass-catching backs with a reception rate of 81 percent — better than Howard, Cohen and actually all but eight NFL runners with 40-plus targets, including a pair of All Pros (Ezekiel Elliott and Christian McCaffrey).
Davis wasn't a big-play source as a receiver for the Seahawks but did have a higher broken-tackle rate (one every 4.25 catches) than Cohen (4.44) after the catch and created more after contact on the ground (2.94 yards per carry) than not only Howard (2.74) but Alvin Kamara (2.75) and Joe Mixon (2.76), according to PFF. Davis also gained nearly a full yard overall more than Howard on each carry last season (4.6 to 3.7) and earned the same AV (approximate value) grade from Pro Football Reference — 6 — as Howard.
Despite being two years older than Howard, the 26-year-old Davis also has a lot more tread on his NFL tires (293 touches compared to 850 for Howard), which could also help explain why the Bears committed to him on Day 1 of free agency for two years as they continue shopping their incumbent. And while Howard's overall production has trended downward since his outstanding rookie season, Davis' numbers are up year over year in virtually every statistical category.
Is Davis the next Le'Veon Bell, who, depending on you believe, also was at least a consideration of the Bears to replace Howard? Of course not. Can Pace find an upgrade from both Davis and Howard next month in the draft? Absolutely.
But the signs pointed toward a changing of the RB guard in Chicago long before Davis' arrival, and it's now confirmed the Bears value Davis more than Howard as their run game continues to evolve.