The Chicago Bears are 1-4 and have played, at times, like one of the worst teams in the NFL this season. Yet despite the disappointing record -- and with it the likelihood this team will miss the playoffs for the sixth straight season -- the Bears have showcased a number of impressive young players.
Two of those youngsters were on full display in Sunday's 29-23 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
The first was Jordan Howard, who appears to be the bell cow running back of the future in Chicago. Howard is coming off a Colts outing in which he ran 16 times for 118 yards (7.4 ypc). It was the second straight game in which Howard has rushed for more than 100 yards, the first Bears runner to do so since Matt Forte in 2013.
Howard is averaging 5.8 yards per carry this season, while adding 12 catches for 122 yards and 1 TD. The 6-3, 222-pound rookie is one of the league leaders in yards after contact. In Indianapolis, he averaged more than 2 yards after contact and broke 7 tackles in just 16 carries, which is phenomenal.
Howard has a lower body made of two tree trunks, which gives him the power to consistently push the pile forward. He's also shown decent speed and nearly outraced the entire Colts defense yesterday on a 57-yard run.
He had his most success between the guards, averaging 16.4 yards between the A gaps, per Pro Football Focus. That was due in large part to the play of fellow rookie C Cody Whitehair, who earned the top grade by PFF of any Bears offensive player on Sunday.
Howard's vision and patience at the line of scrimmage are that of a seasoned veteran. He also has very light feet and dependable hands, while also proving to be extremely reliable in pass protection.
“He is a good, young player," head coach John Fox said yesterday. "He is big and physical. He has good vision. He has a bright future.”
To this point, Howard has done everything right, which has breathed new life into Chicago's once-dormant rushing attack. Even when Jeremy Langford returns from injury, this will be Howard's show moving forward, and that's a very good thing for the offense.
Even better for the offense is the emergence of WR Cameron Meredith, who had career highs on Sunday with 9 catches (on a team-high 12 targets) for 130 yards and 1 TD. The Bears placed Kevin White on IR this week but the offense didn't miss a beat due to Meredith's performance.
Meredith is similar in stature to White -- both are 6-3, White is 8 pounds heavier -- but looks like a much more polished receiver than last year's Top 10 overall pick. Meredith had his way against the Colts secondary, beating them on underneath and intermediate routes, bubble screens and deep balls.
"I'm definitely grateful, no doubt," Meredith said after the game. "I put a lot of hard work in, so any time you can get that type of outcome, I'm definitely going to be proud."
It was a strong overall showing but Meredith did have a costly fumble late in the fourth quarter that helped seal the victory for the Colts.
"I just wish I could get that one mistake back," he said, "but I've got to learn from it going forward."
Meredith is a former Illinois State quarterback who was active for the Bears in 11 games last season. He doesn't hold much special teams value, so the Bears have rostered the former UDFA the past two years based purely on his potential as a pass catcher. His performance yesterday showed why the coaching staff is so enamored with the second-year wideout.
"I think there’s a lot to be excited about Cameron and his role as it goes on, him stepping up," QB Brian Hoyer said after the game.
The losses continue to pile up, which is no fun for any Bears fan, yet the play of Howard and Meredith -- as well as fellow youngster Whitehair and a number of first- and second-year players on defense -- is reason to be excited for the future. Howard looks like an All-Pro in the making, one who can carry the offense for years to come, while Meredith may have the top-tier potential to replace Alshon Jeffery if he leaves after this season.
If both players reach their potential, the Bears will have a 21-year-old and a 24-year-old that can lead the offense into the future.
“Those guys are playing well," said Hoyer. "They’re getting their opportunities and they’re taking advantage of them. Those are two guys who it’s exciting to watch them play. Now we just have to take that next step and win these games.”null