David Montgomery: League-winner in 2020, player to fade in 2021

Andy Behrens
·4 min read

As much as anyone, running back David Montgomery can be credited with the late-season mini-surge that propelled the Chicago Bears into the NFL playoffs. Montgomery averaged 24.8 touches and 136.2 scrimmage yards per game over the final five weeks, reaching the end zone seven times. He was terrific, an offensive centerpiece.

If you happened to make it to the fantasy postseason with Montgomery on your roster, there’s a decent chance you won a ring. He was that good, that impactful. His end-of-year binge vaulted him all the way to a top-five positional finish in fantasy, an outcome that would have seemed utterly impossible at mid-season.

He was a league-winner.

But here’s the thing: We can’t actually draft Montgomery anywhere near his 2020 seasonal finish when it’s time to assemble our 2021 teams. If this isn’t obvious to everyone … well, it should be. Let’s review a few essential details about Montgomery’s year ...

For more than half a season, it looked exactly like 2019

Montgomery entered his bye week averaging 52.4 rushing yards per game and 3.6 YPC over 131 attempts, not quite matching his suboptimal rookie rates (55.6, 3.7). He saw double-digit carries in each of his first nine games, yet had only one rushing score and no 100-yard performances. It’s not as if he was running into stacked fronts, either, as he actually saw a relatively low percentage of 8-man boxes (16.6) throughout the season.

It was another meh campaign in progress for Montgomery, helping no one. And then ...

Chicago’s schedule took an incredible turn

Beginning in Week 12, Montgomery faced Green Bay (twice), Detroit, Houston, Minnesota, and Jacksonville. Those teams finished the season ranked No. 18, 27, 29, 30, and 24 in run defense DVOA. It was an absolute layup line, and Montgomery piled up stats. He averaged 5.2 YPC and 9.4 yards per catch over his final six games, reaching the end zone eight times. He scored at least one touchdown in every game during that stretch, when fantasy managers needed him most.

We obviously expect the league’s top backs to crush the easiest matchups on their schedules, so give Montgomery credit for clearing that bar. But let’s also note that many of his biggest late-season gains basically had a Big-12 degree of difficulty:

Again, it’s nice that he feasted when we all expected him to feast. He’s earned that badge, which is cool. It does not mean, however, that he’s elevated himself into second or third-round fantasy draft status. Especially when we also consider that …

Tarik Cohen is coming back, presumably to his usual role

Cohen suffered a season-ending ACL tear in Week 3 against Atlanta, during a game in which he saw six targets and gained 40-plus scrimmage yards, per his usual. At the time of Cohen’s injury, Montgomery had drawn exactly three targets in each of the Bears’ three games; as a rookie the year before, he never saw more than five in any week.

After Cohen went down, Montgomery’s receiving usage immediately spiked. He saw at least five targets in seven of his remaining games and averaged four catches per week over his final 12. He finished the season with 54 receptions, more than double the previous year’s total (25) and tied for the fifth-most among all running backs. It was clearly a key to his 2020 fantasy value, keeping him relevant before his late-season eruption.

Yet again, while it’s nice to see that Montgomery is capable of producing with an enhanced receiving workload, it seems ridiculous to forecast anything similar for 2021. Cohen is under contract with Chicago through 2023 after signing a multi-year extension back in September. Given the timing of his injury this past season, there’s no reason to think he can’t be ready for opening week. If you’re trying to imagine a path for Montgomery to repeat his 2020 usage next year, Cohen is a significant problem.

None of this, of course, is intended to diminish everything Montgomery just accomplished. He was fifth in the NFL in rushing (1,070 yards) and all-purpose yards (1,508), fourth in total touches (301), fourth at his position in half-PPR scoring, and fourth among all backs in yards after contact. He was verifiably awesome. Shoulda received Pro Bowl recognition.

But if we’re projecting for 2021 (and that’s the job around here), we can’t pencil in Montgomery for last season’s numbers, or anything close.

Let’s just appreciate what he gave us in 2020 without banking on a repeat.

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