ORLANDO — It’s too simple to say the New Orleans Saints would’ve moved to draft Tarik Cohen had Alvin Kamara not been available in the third round of last year's draft.
But coach Sean Payton and the Saints’ front office had a fourth-round evaluation on Cohen, and liked what kind of player he could’ve been in their offense.
“We just valued a certain group of players at that position,” Payton said last week at the NFL annual meetings. “Tarik was a target for us, a guy that we said hey, here are the first round targets, we had Kamara in the second, we had Tarik as a fourth-round target. Those were guys that stood out that we liked.”
Kamara went on to be an integral part of the Saints’ playoff run, scoring 14 touchdowns and winning offensive rookie of the year honors. Cohen had a flashy rookie season, too, though not near to the level of Kamara — though, for what it’s worth, Cohen hardly had a similar surrounding cast of teammates as Kamara did with the playoff-bound Saints.
That’s not to say Cohen could’ve put up similar numbers to Kamara had he been drafted by the Saints instead of the Bears, of course — that would be taking too much away from Kamara. They’re different players, too: Kamara is listed at 5-foot-10 and weighs 214 pounds; Cohen is 5-foot-6 and 179 pounds.
But here’s what Payton said when asked what he liked about Cohen’s game:
“His hands and his ability to adjust, he looked real smart, he’s got the makeup you’re looking for,” Payton said from the NFL’s annual meetings. “He just reminded us of a younger (Darren) Sproles, and we saw someone we felt like we had a clear vision for.”
The similarly-diminutive Sproles had some of his best years in Payton’s offense, and that comparison has been thrown around quite a bit with Cohen — but not necessarily by someone with the gravitas to say it as Payton, under whom Sproles had plenty of success from 2011-2013. That’s worth something.
The Bears played the Saints in Week 8 of the 2017 season, and while Cohen only touched the ball five times in that game, he was coming off back-to-back weeks in which he 1) threw a touchdown and 2) caught a 70-yard deep ball from Mitch Trubisky. There was plenty else that he put on tape that impressed coaches around the league, and not just Payton, given how frequently opposing defenses double-teamed him in 2017.
But for Payton, seeing how well Cohen played during his rookie year was somewhat vindicating, given the evaluation he had on him.
“When the draft ends and you begin the season, of course there are players that you like that go to other teams,” Payton said, “and then when you see them have success, you’re like boom, I was right.”