On Wednesday afternoon the Bears announced that former pass catcher Earl Thomas has died.
Thomas, 71, passed away on July 4th in Houston, Texas. The team declined to list a cause of death, only mentioning an 'illness.'
"We are deeply saddened by the loss of former Bears tight end and receiver Earl Thomas," the team tweeted. "Our hearts go out to his family, friends & loved ones."
Thomas, who played his college ball at the University of Houston, was drafted by the Bears in the sixth round of the 1971. In three seasons with the Bears, Thomas appeared in 39 games with 28 starts, catching 47 passes for 748 yards and seven touchdowns. He started 14 games at tight end in 1972 before switching to receiver one year later, catching 24 balls for 343 yards and 4 TDs. He was also one of three Thomas brothers to play in the NFL.
Per the team release, after his playing career, Thomas became a businessman in the petroleum industry and coach of youth track and field.
The Chicago Bears have a lot of strong bounce-back candidates entering the 2020 season. Mitch Trubisky immediately comes to mind, as does Khalil Mack, whose streak of double-digit sack seasons ended at four last year.
Perhaps no player needs a bigger bounceback than running back Tarik Cohen, the pass-catching dynamo who was anything but in 2019. Cohen ended the season with a career-high 79 receptions but flipped them into just 456 yards. His 5.8 yards per catch was by far the lowest average of his career and has led to questions about whether he can truly be an offensive weapon in the NFL.
Cohen is in a contract year, so of course, he needs to boost his stock by proving he can flip the field anytime he touches the ball. According to ESPN, he's the most likely candidate to be that bounce-back player for the Bears this season.
After being one of the most dynamic receiving backs in the NFL in 2017 and 2018, Cohen took a big step backward in his third season. Combining 2017 and 2018, he ranked behind only Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara in PFF receiving grade. Last season, however, he ranked 24th of 32 running backs who saw at least 40 targets. He dropped more passes, broke tackles at a lower rate and produced significantly fewer explosive plays. It was completely uncharacteristic based on what we saw from him in his first two years in the NFL, so it would be a surprise not to see him bounce back in some capacity in 2020.
The Bears are set up for Cohen to succeed in 2020. Only David Montgomery is slotted ahead of him on the running back depth chart, and Montgomery's skill set doesn't really conflict with the role Cohen plays anyway. In fact, Chicago could use Cohen and Montgomery at the same time, with Cohen lining up in the slot and playing more receiver than running back.
Regardless of how he's used, the expectations for Cohen to have a statistical resurgence are fair. His 2018 season, when he ran for 444 yards and added 725 more through the air (with eight total touchdowns), is more in-line with what we should see from him in 2020.
On Monday morning, Bears' safety Eddie Jackson went on Good Morning Football and single-handedly blew up every single identical roster projection that are appearing on the internet these days:
There's even a tiny bit of precedent here! Jackson played receiver in high school, and has actually already appeared on that side of the ball for the Bears a few times back in 2018. He's also very clearly one of the team's best playmakers. Defensive players getting offensive snaps has all the exhilaration of position players pitching, without any of the unspoken condescension. He also scores like, 75% of the time he touches the ball (honestly, it's more fun for you if you don't bother fact checking this) and after 2019's offensive performance, beggars can't be choosers. Let Eddie Jackson play offense. Let Akiem Hicks play offense. Let Khalil Mack punt the ball if Khalil Mack wants to punt the ball. It's fun and it makes things exciting and positions are stupid.
For what it's worth, it already sounds like Jackson and Nagy are on the same page about all of this:
Who's against this idea? Seriously. Remember 2018? Santa's Sleigh! Oompa Loompa! Chumbawamba! We could have that again. We could have it all.