LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The year Cowboys rookie rusher Ezekiel Elliott had didn't surprise anyone. He was drafted fourth overall, immediately handed the Cowboys starting running back job and rumbled for huge stats in every game.

The year Bears rookie rusher Jordan Howard had, on the other hand, surprised everyone. Even himself.

"I definitely wasn't expecting to have that big of an opportunity or get that much experience," Howard told CBS Sports following a Pro Bowl practice this week, "but I did pretty well with the opportunities I got."

Howard, who began 2016 as a backup, is selling himself short. The 1,313 rushing yards he earned were second only to Elliott, and his 5.2 yards per run was slightly better than Elliott's 5.1 average. Obviously, Elliott's 16 total touchdowns dominated Howard's seven, but that had just as much to do with the Cowboys being a dominant Super Bowl contender compared to the Bears' floundering 3-13 squad.

One area that was supposed to be a weakness in Chicago was the offensive line, but it turned out to be OK. Chicago's front five graded out as the 13th best, according to Pro Football Focus, despite guard Kyle Long missing half of the season and the team trotting out five different starting lineups.

"A lot of people talked about how my offensive line isn't that good, but I don't know what they were really talking about because my offensive line is pretty good," Howard quipped. "No matter who was in there, they got the job done. That's a testimony to them and to the coaches getting them ready."

Two huge keys for that Bears O-line were the free-agent addition of guard Josh Sitton and drafting of rookie center Cody Whitehair. Howard believes both players were secrets to his success. Sitton earned a Pro Bowl nod just as Howard did, and Whitehair could become a Pro Bowl player in the near future.

The combination of a second-year running back and an offensive line that should swing to a team strength gives Howard a chance at being an effective stat producer again in 2017.

"I'll probably get a lot more carries, a lot more touches," Howard said of what he expects his role to be next season. "I feel like I'm one of the core guys on the team. I've got to keep taking the next step, keep getting better."

Howard certainly left room for himself to pick up more work. Despite the incredible rushing and receiving totals, he had 252 carries and 29 catches in 15 games. That's under 20 touches per game. Without question, more work is in Howard's future.

As for his personal goals, he had just one word to say.


While Elliott put in the hard work to help get his team into the postseason this year, it sounds like Howard is willing to put in hard work to help his team get into the postseason next year.

He will hold up his end of the bargain and finish as a top 12 Fantasy running back for the second straight season. He's in play in the late first round of Fantasy drafts.