Bears running back David Montgomery will soon experience the challenges of a free agent running back in today’s NFL. A third-round draft pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, Montgomery is currently in a contract year for a team that may not have reason to commit to him long-term. The final few games of the season could determine how the next stage of Montgomery’s career plays out.
Montgomery entered this season as the Bears’ No. 1 running back with backup Khalil Herbert providing the team with a strong secondary option. Montgomery had produced two strong seasons to kick off his career. As a rookie starting eight games, Montgomery racked up 889 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns, adding 185 yards and a touchdown through the air as a receiving back. In his sophomore season, Montgomery showed a ton of promise, rushing for 1,070 yards and eight touchdowns and catching 54 passes for 438 yards and two touchdowns.
Last year, Chicago drafted Herbert in the sixth-round to supplement their rushing attack. Montgomery’s production slipped a bit as Herbert shared some of the offense, but he still produced 849 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns and showed he was the top receiving back with 301 yards on 42 catches. Herbert got his opportunities, though, and contributed 433 rushing yards and two touchdowns as a rookie.
This year the story has changed a little bit. Despite the fact that, coming into today’s game, Montgomery had started all but one game and appeared in two more games than Herbert, who had missed the team’s last three games with a hip injury, Montgomery trailed Herbert by two rushing yards. Montgomery plays about 67% of the Bears’ offensive snaps on average, while Herbert averages around 37%. Still, until today’s loss against the Eagles, the backup running back, Herbert, was outgaining the starting running back, Montgomery, with an average rushing yards per game of 64.3 to 53.4. Montgomery has maintained his role as the team’s top receiving back this season.
After sitting out of his fourth straight game today, Herbert is set to return next week to help Chicago in its last three games of the regular season. Montgomery will have a bit of an added challenge in the final few games of the season to show his worth to the Bears offense with his more-productive teammate back in the lineup. At 3-11, already eliminated from postseason contention, Montgomery will only have the final three games of the regular season to make his case.
If Montgomery hits free agency, he will join a stacked free agent class of running backs. After his fifth-year option was declined, Raiders running back Josh Jacobs will be a free agent this offseason. Barring any new extensions before the end of the season, Giants running back Saquon Barkley, Eagles running back Miles Sanders, and Cowboys running back Tony Pollard will all join Montgomery and Jacobs on the free agent market. Additionally, key contributors in Browns running back Kareem Hunt, Lions running back Jamaal Williams, Bills running back Devin Singletary, and Patriots running back Damien Harris will all hit free agency, as well. Even a score of reliable backups will be available in Minnesota’s Alexander Mattison, Cincinnati’s Samaje Perine, New York’s James Robinson, Miami’s Raheem Mostert, and Carolina’s D’Onta Foreman.
Needless to say, Montgomery will have a ton of competition in the free agent market. Regardless of the competition, what would a deal with Montgomery look like? Realistically, these days, for a running back that isn’t a super star, a three-year deal is standard. Star backs are set to earn around $14MM to $16MM per year, perhaps more if a suitor wants to set the market high for a free agent target. Strong starters will earn around $10MM to $13MM and second-tier backs will be in the range of about $6MM to $8MM.
Statistically compared to recent contracts, Montgomery matches up closest with a player like Buccaneers running back Leonard Fournette. Fournette recently signed a three-year, $21MM deal after a contract year that could look vaguely similar to what Montgomery is projected to do this year. There are two factors in Montgomery’s favor, though. Montgomery doesn’t have the significant injury history that Fournette does, and Montgomery has been far more consistent with his production year in, year out. This could point to either a three-year deal with a slightly larger average annual value or a similar annual amount with another year tacked on. If Montgomery were in a vacuum, he would likely demand something like a three-year, $24MM contract or a four-year, $28MM deal.
Unfortunately for Montgomery, he is not in a vacuum. With the excessive amount of competition he will face in the free agent market, Montgomery’s value may be diluted. It will be hard to convince a team to shell out big money for Montgomery if they can just sign a lesser deal to one of many options. This may lead Montgomery to seek a team-friendly deal in order to stay in Chicago. With the existing connection and chemistry, Montgomery may be able to get more value out of his current team than he would testing the markets.
Taking all of this into account, Montgomery still will likely earn a three-year contract, possibly even four- with his superior durability. In a diluted market or in a team friendly deal, I could see Montgomery signing with an average annual value of $6MM or $7MM. It would make sense to see Montgomery end up with a three-year, $19.5MM or four-year, $24MM deal this offseason. Whether he wants to stand pat in Chicago or test the free agent waters, Montgomery will have three more games to show what he’s worth.