Bears

Tarik Cohen and the NFL's rookie running backs had quite the Week 1

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USA TODAY

Tarik Cohen and the NFL's rookie running backs had quite the Week 1

Last year the NFL's two leading rushers, Dallas' Ezekiel Elliott and the Bears' Jordan Howard, were rookies.

That may not happen in 2017, but this year's crop of rookie running backs sure got off to a hot start.

That included Howard's backup, as Tarik Cohen made quite the debut in the Bears' 23-17 loss to the Falcons. The 5-foot-6 Cohen caught eight passes for 47 yards and a touchdown and rushed five times for 66 yards. It was quite the coming out party for Cohen and gives the Bears a solid young 1-2 punch in the backfield.

Here's how Cohen stacked up against some other rookie running backs who had stellar debuts (listed by round selected):

Leonard Fournette, Jaguars (1st round): The Texans knew the Jaguars had little to offer in the passing game, yet Fournette still ran with ease. The No. 4 pick rushed 26 times for 100 yards and a touchdown, while also catching three passes for 24 yards.

Christan McCaffrey, Panthers (1st round): Jonathan Stewart actually had a better Sunday afternoon, but McCaffrey still showed flashes. The No. 8 pick had 13 rushes for 47 yards and added five receptions fo 38 yards. He did lose a fumble but it didn't mean much in a 23-3 Panthers victory.

Dalvin Cook, Vikings (2nd round): Cook made Vikings history on Monday night, rushing for 127 yards on 22 rushes and adding three receptions. The rushing yards were the most for a Vikings running back in his debut, topping Adrian Peterson's 103 yards in 2007.

Alvin Kamara, Saints (3rd round): Kamara's numbers weren't great (seven rushes for 18 yards, 4 receptions for 20 yards) but he led the Saints in carries, rushing yards and snaps played (41). That includes Adrian Peterson and Mark Ingram. The three-headed monster didn't mean much in their Monday Night Football thumping in Minnesota, but Kamara looked solid and Sean Payton clearly trusts him.

Kareem Hunt, Chiefs (3rd round): Whoa. The NFL regular season began with Hunt putting together one of the best debuts in NFL history. Hunt ran 17 times for 148 yards and a touchdown, and added five receptions for 98 yards and two scores. He lost a fumble on his first carry (after never doing so in college) but more than made up for it in perhaps the top performance of the week.

Marlon Mack, Colts (4th round): The Colts looked abysmal in their Week 1 loss to the Rams. Mack had an up-and-down afternoon, scoring on a 3-yard run but also committing a fumble that resulted in a safety. We'll throw him in here because he accounted for the Colts' only score in a 46-9 loss.

Chris Carson, Seahawks (7th round): In a backfield touting Eddie Lacy, Thomas Rawls (inactive) and C.J. Prosise, the rookie Carson looked the best in a loss to the Packers. he rushed six times for 39 yards, playing more snaps (26) than Prosise and Lacy combined (23). A terrible performance from Seattle's offensive line prevented Carson from doing much else.

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.