When Chicago Bears starting running back David Montgomery went down with a knee injury in Week 4 against the Detroit Lions, the concern about how the offense would replace his lost production was extreme. Montgomery is the heartbeat of the team, after all, and with veteran Damien Williams and rookie Khalil Herbert the only viable options behind him, a dropoff was expected.
In Sunday’s win over the Las Vegas Raiders, Herbert proved that he not only can replace Montgomery’s lost production but that he’s also an exciting offensive weapon who has the kind of skill set to be a feature runner in the NFL.
Yes, it’s only one game, but what a game it was. Herbert finished Week 5 with 18 carries for 75 yards in his first extended action as a pro. The sixth-round pick from Virginia Tech showed high-level vision, patience, and burst on several chunk plays against the Las Vegas Raiders defense.
The Draft Network’s Joe Marino described Herbert’s ideal role before the 2021 NFL Draft as a fringe lead back and outstanding No. 2, and boy did that prove to be true in Herbert’s first significant action. According to Pro Football Focus, Herbert had 50 of his 75 yards after contact, which was easy even for the novice fan to see. He ran behind his pads and didn’t waste any steps. He was decisive and got upfield. And while it might be somewhat controversial to suggest he looked more explosive than Montgomery… he did. Herbert has some serious juice, and with more reps and experience, field-flipping plays will come.
Herbert had a statement game on Sunday. He isn’t just a day-three rookie who can help Williams shoulder the load left behind by Montgomery. Instead, it appears Herbert gives the Bears the best chance to retain an explosive offense while Montgomery recovers.
Herbert’s rise up the depth chart isn’t all that much of a surprise. Remember: Williams is a journeyman who failed to prove in stops with the Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs that he’s good enough to be ‘the guy.’ Granted, Williams did his part on Sunday too, running 16 times for 64 yards and a touchdown, but the difference in explosive ability between the rookie and the veteran was obvious.
"You have opportunities and you want to make the most of them,” Matt Nagy said after the game. ”Khalil stepped up."
He certainly did, and it appears Herbert is going to continue general manager Ryan Pace’s good fortune with drafting running backs in the mid-to-late rounds. Montgomery was a third-rounder, Tarik Cohen was a fourth-rounder, and Jordan Howard was picked in the fifth round. It looks like Herbert will add a sixth-round hit to his resume.
Herbert was so impressive Sunday that even the guy he’s competing with for carries took notice.
“Man, I was telling him all game—especially coming out in the second half—‘This is on you now,’” Williams said. “I gave my first blows in the first half. Now it’s your turn to get your blows in.’ As a young kid coming into this environment, he held himself great.
“He’s a very consistent person and I feel like if he continues to do that, he’s going to have a long, long future.”
Montgomery was placed on short-term injured reserve by the Bears and is expected to miss at least four games. As a result, Herbert will have an opportunity to continue proving he belongs in the mix on offense, even after No. 32 returns.
Nagy referenced Kareem Hunt’s emergence as a rookie in 2017—when he filled in for an injured Spencer Ware that season—as an example of an untested rookie taking advantage of his opportunity. Now, five seasons later, Hunt is a critical player in the Cleveland Browns offense despite the presence of Nick Chubb, one of the NFL’s best all-around running backs.
It would be premature to suggest Herbert can be the Bears’ version of Hunt, but after his impressive showing against the Raiders, it’s within a reasonable range of outcomes. And that would be a boon for Chicago, which is slowly forming an identity as a physical ground-and-pound team.