It’s a weird time to be in a contract year.
If the NFL’s 2020 season is played in front of empty stadiums, the league’s salary cap very well may decrease in 2021. And that feels like the best-case scenario; the alternative is a shortened season or no season at all amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Money-wise, these are short-term concerns for the league. New TV contracts are expected to generate a windfall of cash for the league in 2022. But immediate financial uncertainty might be why Allen Robinson’s widely-expected contract extension hasn’t happened yet, as colleague Adam Hoge wrote earlier this month.
This all puts Tarik Cohen in a tough spot as he enters the final year of his rookie contract. Being a running back — even one who does so much more — doesn’t help either.
Nor does the fact Cohen is coming off his worst season as a pro.
“It’s definitely a motivating factor being that this is the year,” Cohen said of his upcoming contract year. “I feel like I can’t put any pressure on nobody else. It’s all on me. That’s how I like to go about it.
“I just take it upon myself, anything else like, I want to win as a team. I feel like if we win as a team that is good for everybody’s individual success.”
It’s a good answer. But money for running backs is hard to come by, and might be even harder to come by for Cohen if he can’t prove 2019 was a blip, and not the start of a trend. That's independent of what kind of offense the Bears have.
Cohen averaged 4.7 yards per touch last year — 3.3 yards per rushing attempt and 5.8 yards per reception — down over two yards from his 2018 average. Cohen actually had eight more receptions in 2019 than he had in 2018, yet he had 269 fewer receiving yards.
Cohen admitted he wore down more in 2019, especially toward the end of the season, than he had in years past. He recognizes he needs to better take care of his body — especially without a veteran like Benny Cunningham around to push him.
Also: Cohen had six drops last year, per Pro Football Focus, after having just four total in his first two seasons as a pro.
But not all of Cohen’s 2019 downturn was on him. Matt Nagy struggled to scheme him into favorable matchups — Cohen said he felt like when he was in the slot, he was across from a defensive back; when he stayed in the backfield, “it was pretty much linebackers.”
And when Cohen did get the ball, he didn’t always have an opportunity to run after the catch — although he perhaps could’ve turned upfield more instead of bolting toward the sidelines on some plays.
Either way, Cohen needs to help himself out, but he also needs his coaches and quarterback(s) to help him, too.
Right now, Cohen is saying all the right things. But contract years can become volatile. If Cohen doesn’t feel like he’s getting the help he needs around him, he could become frustrated — and would have every right to feel that way.
“We’re putting last year behind us and we’re just going to move forward,” running backs coach Charles London said. “He knows that I’ve got his back and we’re going to do whatever we think’s best for Tarik as far as in the offense and whatever that may entail. I don’t think that’s going to be an issue with him at all. He’s also very motivated to get out there and return to his 2018 form.”
That’s the goal, to get Cohen back to who he was in 2018. That version of Cohen should have no problem landing a multi-year, eight-figure contract — even in the midst of a pandemic.
That’s also the version of Cohen the Bears need to revive their offense.
“I feel like we’ll probably go back to the things we were doing in 2018,” Cohen said. “I feel like we’re just going to simplify things. I feel like at times we just made things too hard on ourselves and we didn’t have people guessing. I feel like we were kinda just showing our cards a little bit.
“I feel like this year, with a new OC, coach (Bill) Lazor — (I’m) already seeing the things he has planned for us. It’s going to be hard to tell who’s getting the ball and when or how they’re getting the ball, too.