The Tarik Cohen you saw in 2019 is not the Tarik Cohen you will see in 2020.
This is not based on anything, necessarily, I’ve seen from Cohen over the first week of practice at Halas Hall. Cohen looks fine. He's still quick, he's still fast. He's still Tarik Cohen.
This has everything to do with what I’ve seen from the Bears’ tight ends – plural – so far in training camp.
Jimmy Graham's been the most impressive player on the fields of Halas Hall. Cole Kmet's flashed with his size, speed and athleticism to win matchups against some pretty good defenders. Demetrius Harris looks like someone who would've been the Bears' best tight end last year. Even some of the reserves, like Eric Saubert and Jesper Horsted, have made some slick plays.
And if the Bears' tight ends keep this up in the regular season, it'll massively benefit the 25-year-old Cohen.
“I definitely feel like they’re going to have a lot of attention on them, being great targets in the passing game,” Cohen said. “For the most part, safeties and other DBs will have to honor them. I think I will be mostly matched up against linebackers again.”
The key word in there: Again.
The Bears got solid play from tight end Trey Burton in 2018, and it’s not a coincidence Cohen averaged 6.9 yards per touch – 15th highest in the league – that year. Then came Burton's injury issues only a few days into 2019, and just a few hours before the Bears’ Wild Card game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Cohen was held to just four touches in that brutal playoff loss. Then, without any semblance of good tight end play in 2019 (J.P. Holtz led all Bears' tight ends with 91 yards), Cohen averaged 4.7 yards per touch – a career low, and over two yards less than what he had the year prior.
This isn’t to completely write off Cohen’s 2019 as the product of the Bears’ tight end mess. He dropped a career high six passes and admitted he wore down during the year after not taking care of his body well enough during a difficult offseason (his half-brother, Dante Norman, was shot and paralyzed from the waist down in June of 2019).
“The season I had last year was definitely not my best work,” Cohen said. “I definitely have to get that bitter taste out of my mouth. That’s what I came into the offseason with. That drove me into the offseason, through my workouts and now even in training camp. I believe the coaches and all the staff upstairs, they can see that I’m ready to have a season like I had in 2018.”
Still, only two running backs were targeted more out of the slot than Cohen last year (Christian McCaffrey and Austin Ekeler), yet seven running backs had more receiving yards from the slot. Cohen’s 1.09 yards per route run from the slot ranked 39th among running backs; in 2018, Cohen averaged 3.19 yards per route run from the slot, 7th highest.
It goes back to what Cohen said earlier this year about what happened in 2019.
“When I went to the slot outside, I was seeing defensive backs,” Cohen said. “But when I stayed in the backfield, it was pretty much linebackers.”
Translation: The Bears couldn’t get Cohen the kind of mismatches that made him such an explosive weapon in 2018. And that’s not Cohen’s fault.
One startling example: Cohen was targeted 11 times and caught nine passes in the Bears’ Week 7 loss to the New Orleans Saints. Yet he had just 19 receiving yards – 19! – because he was matched up against defensive backs on eight of those 11 targets.
Burton, in that game, had two catches for 11 yards.
Matt Nagy talks a lot about needing his tight ends – specifically the “U,” which Burton played and Graham plays – to be “adjusters” for the offense. Those are the guys whose presence on the field allows the offense to take advantage of mismatches. Without the adjusters, the mismatches often go away.
And so do the yards for Cohen.
This is why the play we’ve seen from Graham, Kmet, and Harris this month has been so encouraging. Good tight end play helps the entire offense. And it should allow the Bears to get Cohen more mismatches not only in the slot, but in taking handoffs out of the backfield, too.
The timing couldn’t be better for Cohen, who’s in the final year of his rookie contract. He’s still the same guy we saw in 2018. He’ll just have more chances to show it in 2020 – and more chances to get paid in 2021.
“Going into a contract year, I already know that it’s only one thing that matters and it’s how I play on the field this season,” Cohen said. “… Ultimately I know it’s on me to perform well this year, so I’m taking all things considered, I’ve got to ball out this year.