David Montgomery is a player who has seen his fantasy football value rise and fall over the past offseason. After a tough 2019 season, the opinion of Montgomery’s potential for 2020 was not positive. However, with the Chicago Bears choosing not to draft a running back in the 2020 NFL Draft, Montgomery stands unchallenged as the bell cow back for Chicago. Then just as he looked clear as the top back in the backfield, a nasty looking slip during training camp has seen doubts cast about when Montgomery will be on the field in 2020.
Tarik Cohen is a wonderful player, but he does not have the frame to shoulder 150 to 200 carries a season, with his role coming more in the receiving game. Then with relatively unknown names such as Ryan Nall and Artavis Pierce, as well as WR/RB Cordarrelle Patterson making up the remainder of the depth chart, there is the potential for plenty of opportunities to come the way of Montgomery when he returns. The question lies in whether Montgomery can take advantage of those opportunities and what that means for his fantasy value in 2020 and beyond?
Opportunities offer a golden ticket for David Mongomery’s value in fantasy
In the days of fading bell cow backs and increased committee situations, it can be tough to identify a running back going outside the top-10 at the position that has a chance to command close to 75% of his teams carries in a season. Even with this injury to his groin, that is the opportunity that Montgomery has in 2020, being paired with a running back in Cohen who has never carried the ball 100 times in a season.
In 2019, Chicago carried the ball 395 times in total, with 48 of those carries by Mitchell Trubisky and six by Chase Daniel. That leaves 341 carries that were handled by either a running back or a wide receiver. Of those 341 carries, Montgomery had 242, which equates to 71% of the teams carries by a non-QB.
Given that the first two weeks of the season Mike Davis handled 56% and 25% of the snaps, respectively, as the Bears eased Montgomery in as a rookie, that number could have been even higher. Following Week 2, Davis did not see a double-digit snap share for the Bears again on offense in the 12 games he was active, while Mongtomery saw less than 50% of the snaps just twice in the last 14 games that season. With Davis released, and no veteran brought in to replace him, it would suggest Montgomery is going to be given every opportunity to succeed in 2020.
Montgomery dominated red-zone carries in 2019
While carries and touches are important, another valuable element to consider when assessing the value of running backs is red-zone work. As would be expected, red-zone carries correlate fairly strongly with touchdowns, with an R2 of 0.79. Red-zone carries, in turn then correlate with fantasy points reasonably strongly, especially in non-PPR formats, where the R2 is 0.84. However, even in PPR formats, the R2 between red-zone carries and fantasy points is still reasonable at 0.78.
That is very good news for Montgomery, who commanded nearly two-thirds of the Bears red-zone carries in 2019. He turned those 33 red-zone carries into six touchdowns, which was a similar conversion rate (18.2%) to the likes of Ezekiel Elliott, Josh Jacobs, and Tevin Coleman while sitting just behind the 20% conversion rate of Christian McCaffrey.
Where Montgomery’s numbers really stand out is inside the five-yard line where he was second only to Leonard Fournette in team rush attempts with 87.5%. Unfortunately, his conversion rate of 35.7% (5 TDs in 14 attempts), was below the average conversion rate of 49%. However, converting inside the five-yard line can often prove to be a variable stat depending on formation and play-calling. If the Bears’ offensive line takes a step up or Matt Nagy adjusts his goal-line formations slightly, then that conversion rate could easily creep up to include another touchdown or two for Montgomery.
The promise for Montgomery is that he should continue to dominate touches inside the red zone and the five-yard line. Cohen has never seen more than 20% of the Bears red-zone carries, and inside the five-yard line, he has been below 10% in two of his three seasons in the NFL. With no other obvious challengers for the role right now, the red zone should be all clear for Montgomery to dominate.
Did Montgomery underperform in 2019?
Montgomery’s numbers from 2019 certainly are not pretty. He ranked 27th among running backs when it came to Pro Football Network’s Offensive Share Metric. In terms of yards per attempt, he ranked a lowly 41st at 3.7, and his efficiency (total yards covered divided by yards gained) was in the bottom half of the position, suggesting he has a tendency to expend excess energy going sideline to sideline instead of north to south.
When we look at his Expected Fantasy Points (xFP) and Fantasy Point Differential (FPD), the situation is concerning. Montgomery’s FPD was -16% in non-PPR and -14% in PPR leagues, demonstrating that he struggled to make the most of his opportunities in his rookie season. Among players with an xFP of at least 50, Montgomery’s FPD was the 18th worst score. If we adjust that to only include players with an xFP >100, then he was the seventh-worst performer among 38 qualified backs.
There are some positives to take from 2019, however. Montgomery ranked joint-sixth in broken tackles with 28 and seventh when it came to frequency of broken tackles, once every 8.6 carries. If we look at his numbers on Next Gen Stats, his time behind the line of scrimmage ranked 16th at the position, which suggests at the very least he is hitting the holes reasonably quickly.
Is the problem in Chicago deeper than just Montgomery?
As Montgomery was a rookie in 2019, we have no direct context with which to judge his performance. However, what we can do is take a look at Montgomery’s performance in 2019 in the context of Jordan Howard’s performances as the Bears’ lead back in the previous three years. Before we do that, it is worth further contextualizing Howard and Montgomery as athletes.
The two of them actually ranked extremely similarly when it came to their relative athleticism scores. Howard actually had a slightly higher RAS of 5.42, compared to 5.23 for Montgomery. Howard ran a marginally quicker 40 than Montgomery and had the edge when it came to his height and weight. Montgomery graded out better when it came to agility, but his explosion grade was below that of Howard. Overall, the two are reasonably similar in terms of their athletic profile, which makes them a good comparison study.
If we look back over the Fantasy Point Differential scores of the two backs over the past four years as the lead back in Chicago, we can instantly see a trend. In 2016, when Howard was a rookie, he had an FPD of 9% (8% in PPR). However, in 2017 and 2018, those FPD numbers dropped to -8% and -7%, respectively (-7% in both years in PPR). As mentioned above, those numbers dropped even further in 2019 for Montgomery (-16% and -14%).
Lets now try further to contextualize those numbers by looking at how the Bears’ offensive line ranked when it came to run blocking according to Football Outsiders. The graph below shows Chicago’s offensive line run blocking ranking for those four years alongside the non-PPR FPD scores.
Now while there is no real correlation between offensive line rankings and FPD when we look at the complete dataset, there does appear to be something of a correlation for the Bears over the past four seasons.
The question is, will we will see an improvement in 2020? That is frankly up for debate. As it stands, the Bears are slated to return the five offensive linemen who played the majority of their snaps last season. In addition, Kyle Long’s retirement means Rashaad Coward is expected to be the opening day starter next season.
The tackles Bobby Massie and Charles Leno Jr. were both below average at the position when it came to run blocking, as were the returning potential interior starters Cody Whitehair, James Daniels, and Coward. If we look deeper into the depth chart, things do not look that bright either. None of their backups are likely to offer serious improvement to this offensive line.
Could the Bears add another back in the next few weeks?
There is certainly the possibility that Montgomery’s groin strain and subsequent missed time might open up an opportunity for the Bears to bring in another back. At this stage, it is likely if they were going to move on a current free agent, such as Devonta Freeman, they would have already done so. Therefore, it seems as though the most likely addition could come via trade or following a release of a player from another team.
A viable candidate for that could be Leonard Fournette, who was released by the Jacksonville Jaguars on Monday. Fournette would provide the Bears with a bell cow caliber back who has also proven he can be useful in the receiving game. However, despite Fournette’s $4.167 million in remaining salary seeming extremely minor, the Bears may decide they are better off saving that space to utilize later this season or in 2021 as rollover cap space.
While it would be unwise to rule out any move from the Bears for Fournette, it would seem surprising that after spending an entire offseason content with Montgomery as their lead back that they would make this move now. Fournette has been available for trade all offseason and we have heard no indication that the Bears have expressed interest. Given the Jaguars just released Fournette, they likely could have obtained for as little as a late-round draft pick in the past week since Montgomery’s injury.
What is David Montgomery’s fantasy outlook in 2020?
The uncertainty of when we may see Montgomery on the field with his groin strain is certainly making it more difficult to judge what to expect from the second-year back. If he is on the field to start Week 1, then it appears the case that Mongomery will still be in line for the bulk of the carries in this offense.
However, groin strains can be tricky injuries, and while the timeframe for return in just two to four weeks, it may be a while longer before we see Montgomery at full speed. Therefore, it could be that for the first few weeks of the season you will find yourself with a tough decision over whether to risk Montgomery in your starting lineup if he is active.
With all of that in mind though, assuming the Bears do not add anyone, this job should be all Montgomery’s when he returns, which is huge for his value in fantasy football. There are not many backs that are assured of the starters carries in any given week. Montgomery appears to be one of them. Therefore, there is definitely an opportunity to exploit value right now in drafts, as well as in the trade market.
As of the end of August, Montgomery is going off the board 65th overall and as the 26th RB according to Fleaflicker’s ADP. Getting a potential bell-cow running back in the sixth or seventh round is a huge bonus, even if you may have to wait a couple of weeks for him to make an impact in the 2020 fantasy football season.
What is Montgomery’s long-term fantasy value?
In general, a running backs value when it comes to fantasy football peaks in his first four seasons in the league. After a rough rookie year in terms of production, and now with an injury entering 2020 is potentially the best opportunity that you may have to buy-low on Montgomery.
If you are proactive now then you could obtain a back who is seemingly locked in as the bell cow for his offense in 2020 and beyond. The Bears may very well chase a running back next offseason, but if they see a glimpse of potential from Montgomery in 2020, then it is unlikely they invest heavily. Acting now could net you a player with the talent and the potential workload to be a top-15 back in the next two or three seasons.