Bears: How Tarik Cohen avoided the rookie wall in his explosive debut season

USA Today

Bears: How Tarik Cohen avoided the rookie wall in his explosive debut season

Tarik Cohen wasn’t surprised by the physicality of the NFL or what it takes to successfully get through the grind of his 17-week rookie season. What he, perhaps, was less prepared for was the fame that’d come with one of the more exciting debut seasons by a Bears player in recent memory. 

“Going out to Wal-Mart, you always gotta take pictures, you gotta sign something,” Cohen said. “I wish it was an area like, sometimes I could turn it off, I could just be invisible, I could go to Wal-Mart and get meat, some paper towels and not be in there for 30 minutes. 

“… I see myself as a regular person, I just want everybody else to look at me the same way.”

What Cohen has done on the field in 2017, though, has been far from regular. He’s the first rookie to have a running, receiving, passing and returning touchdown since Gale Sayers in 1965. He’s the shortest player to throw a touchdown, which he did Oct. 15 against the Baltimore Ravens, since Wee Willie Smith in 1934 (“shout-out to Wee Willie,” Cohen said after that game, “I’m Wee ‘Rik”). He’s carried 84 times for 357 yards with two scores and caught 47 passes for 344 yards and a touchdown, all while providing a spark for a frequently-moribund offense. 

Back in August, a common line of questioning to Cohen was centered around if he could hold up over the course of a 16-game season. It made sense, at least on the surface: Standing at 5-foot-6 and weighing 181 pounds, the potential for Cohen to be hit hard and thrown around by bigger, stronger defenders was there. And those big hits, theoretically, could lead to injuries and missed time.

There’s been none of that for Cohen, who hasn't ever been listed on the team’s daily injury reports during his rookie year. For a team that’s placed 19 players on injured reserve since the beginning of training camp, that’s an even more impressive feat. 

“I think he takes care of his body,” coach John Fox said. “He’s a pretty quick guy. Even though he might be viewed as undersized, he doesn’t experience too many direct hits. I think he avoided that pretty well. His football IQ is good in that sense. He doesn’t put himself in compromising positions. That and I think his mindset has been to take good care of himself. He gets plenty of rest and it’s just being a professional.”

Cohen credited veteran running back Benny Cunningham for helping teach him how to take care of his body during the season. He’ll frequent the ice tub and get off his feet as much as possible, and for Cohen, off days are off days. Not only has that helped keep Cohen physically fresh, but mentally, he hasn't hit a rookie wall either. 

“(I try) to give him as much advice as possible about how to stay healthy, how draining it can become,” Cunningham said. “But I feel like he just has a genuine love for the game and you can see that every practice, every game — win or lose, his attitude and mentality, it stays the same.”

The Bears identified Cohen’s work ethic when scouting him, and figured his explosive playmaking ability could translate to the NFL level when they picked him in the fourth round of April’s draft. But Cohen’s blown past expectations like a defender trying to tackle him in 2017, and the Bears can see him growing with Mitchell Trubisky as a big part of their long-term plans.

“He practices really hard and brings a lot of energy and passion to the game,” Trubisky said. “He’s got the right mentality to play this game. His attitude is probably what’s going to carry him the farthest. His ability alone, catching the ball, running the ball, is special, but his attitude is what’s going to separate him. His mentality, no matter who’s up against him, is that he’s going to be successful and beat the man across from him.”

Of course, the more success Cohen has, the more times he’ll be stopped in Wal-Mart or wherever to interact with fans. All those in-person interactions have been positive, Cohen said, and not strange — “Just taking pictured in the frozen food section, holding sausages and stuff.” Cohen figured his diminutive stature makes him stick out, too. 

“They see a little grown man,” Cohen said. “There’s only one little grown man in Chicago right now.”

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

The first major move of Ryan Pace’s 2018 offseason hit on Tuesday, as NFL Network reported the Bears will not exercise Josh Sitton’s $8 million option for 2018. 

The move accomplishes two things for the Bears: 1) It frees up about $8 million in cap space and 2) Removes a veteran from the offensive line and creates a hole to fill, presumably by a younger free agent or draft pick. 

The 31-year-old Sitton signed a three-year deal with the Bears after Green Bay cut him just before the 2016 season, and was a Pro Bowler his first year in Chicago. Sitton played 26 of 32 games in two years with the Bears, but him being on the wrong side of 30 was likely the biggest factor here. If the Bears saw his skills eroding, releasing him now and netting the cap savings while going younger at the position does make sense. 

“Going younger” doesn’t guarantee the Bears will draft Notre Dame brawler Quenton Nelson, though that did become a greater possibility with Tuesday’s move. Nelson might be one of the two or three best offensive players in this year’s draft, and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand knows him well from the four years they spent together at Notre Dame. 

There’s a natural fit there, of course, but a few reasons to slow the Nelson-to-Chicago hype train: Would he even make it to No. 8? Or if he’s there, is taking a guard that high worth it when the Bears have needs at wide receiver, outside linebacker and cornerback? Still, the thought of Nelson — who absolutely dominated at Notre Dame — pairing with Hiestand again is tantalizing, and Nelson very well could step into any team’s starting lineup and be an immediate Pro Bowler as a rookie. 

If the Bears go younger in free agency, Matt Nagy knows 26-year-old guard Zach Fulton (No. 25 in Bleacher Report’s guard rankings) well from their time in Kansas City. Fulton — a Homewood-Flossmoor alum — has the flexibility to play both guard positions and center, which could open the door for Cody Whitehair to be moved to left guard, the position he was initially drafted to play (though the Bears do value him highly as a center, and keeping him at one position would benefit him as opposed to moving him around the line again). There are some other guys out there — like Tennessee’s Josh Kline or New York’s Justin Pugh — that could wind up costing more than Fulton in free agency. 

Or the Bears could look draft an offensive lineman after the first round, perhaps like Ohio State’s Billy Price, Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn or UTEP’s Will Hernandez. How the Bears evaluate guards at the NFL Combine next week will play an important role in how they go about replacing Sitton. 

The trickle-down effect of releasing Sitton will impact more than the offensive line, too. Freeing up his $8 million in cap space -- which wasn't a guarantee, unlike cutting Jerrell Freeman and, at some point, Mike Glennon -- could go toward paying Kyle Fuller, or another top cornerback, or a top wide receiver, or some combination of players at those positions (as well as outside linebacker). The Bears were already in a healthy place cap-wise; that just got healthier on Tuesday. 

Bears cut ties with linebacker Jerrell Freeman

Bears cut ties with linebacker Jerrell Freeman

The Bears began their slew of offseason moves by releasing inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Freeman, 31, signed a three-year, $12 million deal with the Bears in 2016.

In his first year in Chicago he amassed 110 tackles in 12 games but was suspended four games for PED use. He played in just one game lsat season before suffering a pectoral injury that placed him on IR. He then tested positive again for a performance-enhancing drug, resulting in a 10-game suspension that bleeds over into 2018 for two more games, wherever he winds up.