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Jordan Howard will be the best thing about the Bears in 2017

Chicago has a stud tailback who will be the target of each opposing team’s defense this fall.

NFL: Washington Redskins at Chicago Bears Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Jordan Howard knows about playing for losers. He started his college career at Alabama-Birmingham, a team the university president deemed so hopeless he briefly shut down the program from 2015 to 2016. He finished it at Indiana, a program historically known as one of the Big Ten’s gridiron bottom-feeders.

His biggest challenge, however, may come in his second season as a pro. Howard will be the Bears’ lone offensive threat in what promises to be a trying season in Chicago. His quarterback will be either 6’6 scarecrow Mike Glennon or rookie Mitchell Trubisky, who has started exactly one post-high school season in his career. His starting receivers look like some combination of Cameron Meredith, Kevin White, and Markus Wheaton. There’s a good chance his starting tight end is Adam Shaheen, a rookie who spent 2016 playing for Division II Ashland.

As a result, Howard’s fight against the sophomore slump will be harder than any other second-year player’s. Opposing defenses will have a clear No. 1 on their to-do list each time they face a languid Chicago offense. Linebackers and safeties will creep closer and closer to the line of scrimmage unless the Bears’ passing attack finds a way to surprise in 2017. Shutting down the dynamic young back would mean the team has to beat you with players like Glennon and Meredith — not exactly intimidating forces.

But betting against Howard is a fool’s errand. He has preternatural vision and anticipation from the backfield, allowing him to see holes that haven’t even begun to open as he makes his cuts. His rookie season was a magic show. He’d disappear into a cloud of blockers, then emerge sprinting wildly out the other side.

While Howard lacks the top-end speed to be a true home run threat like Ezekiel Elliott, his ability to move the chains for a lackluster offense in 2016 made him special. With the three-headed hydra of overthrown passes behind center — Jay Cutler, Brian Hoyer, and Matt Barkley — defenses knew they had to stop Chicago’s rushing attack. Despite the pressure, he still rushed for 1,313 yards, more than anyone else in the league not named Zeke.

In 2017, he’ll have to replicate that performance despite a passing offense that looks even worse on paper than last season’s. Fortunately, the second-year tailback is more than just a runner.

Howard’s ability to work as an active receiver gives him an extra dimension and will make him a useful security blanket option for Glennon or Trubisky this fall. He caught 29 passes as a rookie and while his 58 percent catch rate was on the low side for a running back, it’s something that stands to improve with experience. This development was an added bonus for the rookie, as he’d made only 24 total receptions in his three seasons of college football.

The unique vision and innovation Howard brings to the running game also translates as a receiver. Here, he sticks with a scrambling Cutler just long enough to be the target of a last-second shovel pass. Howard’s willingness to improvise turns a broken third-and-8 play into a 38-yard gain.

That’s the kind of unplanned wizardry Howard brings to the table. Even when teams blast through the Chicago offensive line, he has the patience to find holes and the vision to take the path of least resistance. With opponents likely to stuff the box with defenders in an all-out effort to stop the Bears’ best player, those skills will be put to the test in 2017.

Fortunately for Chicago, its young running back has proved time and again he can be a glimmering light that shines through a bad team. All the Bears have to do now is figure out the rest of their offense.