Rookie running back Tarik Cohen was one of the more fun surprises of the 2017 NFL season. The North Carolina A&T Aggie entered the league as a fourth-round pick to the Chicago Bears and became a de facto weapon for a team that was hammered by injuries at the skill positions.
The end result? Cohen finished second on the Bears with 71 targets and was six catches away from being the team leader in receptions. Cohen’s 723 yards from scrimmage were second on the team behind starting running back Jordan Howard. In the process Cohen was able to illustrate that his electric running style from a small college could immediately translate to the big leagues after all.
Where will Cohen go from here? The clue may lie with Chicago’s choice to replace John Fox as the team’s head coach: Matt Nagy, who most recently was the offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Nagy served as the team’s offensive coordinator for the past two seasons, which coincided with the arrival and explosion of Tyreek Hill onto the NFL landscape.
Hill, like Cohen, is a diminutive weapon (5-10, 195 pounds) from a small school, West Alabama. Of course Hill did have a brief stint at Oklahoma State before being dismissed from the program on account of domestic violence charges, but those problems did not stop Hill from being a Day 3 selection for the Chiefs.
Fast forward two years — Hill has accounted for 20 touchdowns, been named to the Pro Bowl twice, logged a 1,000-yard receiving season in 2017, and was named an All-Pro as a rookie punt returner in 2016.
It’s an impressive set of accolades for a player who was largely a running back in college.
Sound familiar? Cohen was a running back in college and will still undoubtedly get touches as a ballcarrier, but he’s not going to see full-time touches with jackhammer Jordan Howard holding down the starting spot. So why not take Cohen, who has proven himself to be effective as a receiver, and move him to more of a receiver role?
The Bears’ wide receiver group desperately needs an overhaul and isn’t going to be solved by adding any one receiver. With the Bears currently slated to pick eighth, there may not be a receiver the team deems worth selecting to step into the starting lineup.
The receiver overhaul will be a multi-year project, but Nagy will evaluate the skill set of Cohen and undoubtedly see some parallels with Hill.
Can Cohen find the same recipe for big plays Hill has enjoyed? That will come down to Nagy’s play-calling. The Chiefs have been masterful in finding one-on-one situations for Hill and allowing him to thrive with open-field touches. The team wasn’t afraid to unleash him on deeper routes, which wasn’t evident with Cohen under Fox and offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. Cohen averaged 6.7 yards per reception last season.
Just how good has Tyreek Hill been? He has scored 20 touchdowns in his first two seasons, and only four of those touchdowns have been shorter than 30 yards in distance. His average scoring play? 51 yards. That’s incredible — perhaps it’s unfair to expect Cohen, as electric as he is, to meet that standard.
With that said, the Bears’ offense is primed for a massive upgrade in coaching. Fox’s units were disorganized ever since he came to Chicago.
The template is there. The coaching connection of Matt Nagy will provide the opportunity to make the transition for Cohen. The electric skill sets of Hill and Cohen have enough in common to at least warrant a long, hard look before dismissing the idea.
Cohen was a fun player, but he wasn’t the special weapon Tyreek Hill has proven to be through his first two seasons. Cohen’s ascension was in part due to necessity, because the Bears didn’t have much else to look to in an effort to make big plays. But even if Cohen’s role becomes that of a “bargain” Hill, it’s a big win for the Bears and another win for small-school skill players across the nation.