Bears

How Tarik Cohen is thriving as the Bears continue to put more on his plate

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USA Today

How Tarik Cohen is thriving as the Bears continue to put more on his plate

Mitchell Trubisky shook his head and grinned when he fielded yet another question this week about the touchdown pass Tarik Cohen threw against the Baltimore Ravens.

“Dang, you guys can’t get enough of this,” Trubisky said. “I talked about it after the game. Dowell (Loggains) was saying it was the best pass of the game. I’m like, ‘All right, geez, let him play quarterback.

“… He threw a dime ball. I love how he was fading away on it and celebrating on the 50-yard line. Zach (Miller) made a great catch. So A-plus; really impressive spiral, especially with the gloves on. Can’t count any of that out. Tarik’s a special player and it was an awesome throw.”

The point here is less about Cohen’s throw and more about the Bears finding yet another way for the rookie running back to make an impact. So far this year, Cohen has rushed 50 times, caught 26 passes, returned 14 punts and now thrown that historic touchdown. He’s been asked to block in pass protection more frequently, allowing him to be on the field more. And he’s worked with wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni and Kendall Wright (who Cohen referred to as another receiver coach for him) to expand his route tree, leading him to be the most-targeted player (33 targets) on the Bears through six weeks. 

That may seem like a lot to put on the plate of a fourth-round draft pick from an FCS school, but it hasn’t been too much for Cohen. 

“We need Tarik to be that guy for us — the best playmaker we have,” Loggains said. “There’s no secret there. And he’s a guy who we’ll continue to use, and people are aware of him. So how creative can we get with him? How many different things can we do with him? 

“Like, we’re stretching him. Mentally, he’s stretched to the max playing all these positions — motioning out to wide receiver, playing running back and doing more in the backfield with more carries. So we have to keep stretching him and keep using him in the offense.”

Opposing defenses have keyed on Cohen since his explosive debut Week 1 against the Atlanta Falcons, scheming to muffle his playmaking ability. But he still managed to nearly have a walk-off 73-yard run against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 3, and then in Week 6, with defenses figuring they could crash down on him on sweep plays to the edge, he (literally) threw another wrinkle into how to gameplan against him. The next time the Bears run a toss sweep to Cohen, opposing safeties will have to think twice about bolting toward the line of scrimmage to stop him. 

Every time Cohen seems to hit a rookie wall, he and the Bears find a way to knock it down. The discussion a week ago about Cohen was that he was dancing too much and not cutting upfield quick enough; this week, it’s all about his perfect quarterback rating. 

“Our coaches do a good job of continuing to put him in places so he can be successful,” fellow running back Benny Cunningham said. “But ultimately I feel like he has such a genuine love of the game, I don’t see that happening (hitting the wall). Since the day he’s been here, from Day 1 to today, I’ve seen no drop-off in his desire to be successful and to help this offense.”

The Bears have known this about Cohen's mentality since they scouted and drafted him back in the spring, and his potential only blossomed after getting him into Halas Hall in May — “Early on, we knew Tarik was going to be pretty special,” coach John Fox said. But Cohen wouldn’t be able to reach that potential without the ability to handle the responsibilities of all the different tasks the Bears have asked of him so far. 

Cohen’s ability to do so many different things makes him an important player for this team, and his ability to do them with an exciting, playmaking flair has made him a fan favorite since training camp. So what’s next for the 5-foot-6 rookie?

“I think we’ve got something — I’ll punt the ball this week,” Cohen joked. “Naw, I’m playin’. I can’t put the ball for nothing, I don’t think. It’ll probably go like 20 yards.”

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Low

Decisions to be made on: Christian Jones (free agent), John Timu (free agent), Jonathan Anderson (free agent); Jerrell Freeman has reportedly been cut

Possible free agent targets: Demario Davis, Preston Brown, Anthony Hitchens, Avery Williamson, Navorro Bowman, Derrick Johnson

How the Bears rate Nick Kwiatkoski will be the key to figuring out what this unit will look like in 2018. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio thought Kwiatkoski finished last season strong, but strong enough to rely on him in 2018 as the starter next to Danny Trevathan?

The thing with the Bears’ inside linebackers, though: Trevathan makes whoever is playing next to him better. The problem is Trevathan hasn’t been able to stay on the field — he missed time in 2017 with a calf injury and a one-game suspension, and missed half of 2016 after rupturing his Achilles’. Trevathan hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013, so durability is an issue for the soon-to-be 28-year-old.

So that leads to this question: Do the Bears need to find someone in free agency, regardless of how they value Kwiatkoski, who’s also missed time due to injuries in his first two years in the league?

Free agency could provide a few options. Demario Davis had a career high 97 tackles for the New York Jets last year and has never missed a game as a pro. Preston Brown had some decent production in Buffalo and also hasn’t missed a game since being drafted in 2014. Avery Williamson may not be a world-beater but has only missed one game in his four years in the NFL.

The Bears could also opt for someone who fits more of a rotational mold, like Dallas’ Anthony Hitchens, or try to lure a veteran linebacker like Navorro Bowman (who played for Vic Fangio in San Francisco) or Derrick Johnson (who Matt Nagy knows from his Kansas City days) to play next to Trevathan and/or Kwiatkoski.

The Bears could opt to keep the status quo and re-sign Christian Jones and John Timu for depth, and enter 2018 with Kwiatkoski and Trevathan as the team’s starters (Jerrell Freeman, who suffered a season-ending injury and then was hit with his second PED suspension in as many years, was cut on Tuesday). Signing a starting-caliber free agent isn’t out of the question, either, but there is a third option for the Bears if they appear to stand pat in free agency: Draft an inside linebacker in April. If that’s the route they go, Georgia’s Roquan Smith could be the guy. But again, those more pressing needs at other positions could mean the Bears don’t burn a first-round pick on an inside linebacker.

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.