Bears

Recalling Bears RB Rashaan Salaam: a gentle young man, now dead at age 42

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AP

Recalling Bears RB Rashaan Salaam: a gentle young man, now dead at age 42

The thing that stood out about Rashaan Salaam to this reporter was the genuine humility that once prompted him to ask, “Why do you want to talk to me? I haven’t done anything yet. You should talk to these guys,” gesturing down the locker-room way toward some of his offensive linemen.

So on Tuesday when the news hit that Salaam had been found dead of undetermined causes in a Boulder, Colo., park at age 42, the first thought, after abject disbelief, was what kind of young man the Bears’ 1995 first-round draft choice was. And your mind goes back to Andy Heck, one of those offensive linemen, saying after Salaam had suffered a knee injury in a game at Cincinnati, that “Rashaan didn’t say anything, just was there in the huddle, his leg actually shaking from what must have been the pain.”

Salaam had won the 1994 Heisman Trophy as a running back topping 2,000 rushing yards with Kordell Stewart and the Colorado Buffaloes. "He was very coachable," former Colorado coach Bill McCartney said, via the school's website. "He had a happy heart. I loved being around him. He didn't take himself too seriously, and he always credited those around him, especially his offensive line. What I liked about him is that he had a sparkle in his eye. He was upbeat and positive."

Bears then-personnel chief Rod Graves made Salaam the 21st pick of the 1995 first round, and Salaam proceeded to then have one of the great rookie seasons in Bears history – 1,074 rushing yards (then a Bears rookie record, since eclipsed by Matt Forte and Anthony Thomas), and 10 touchdowns (exceeded only by Gale Sayers). Salaam was named NFC offensive rookie of the year.

But his year was marked by 10 fumbles (or nine, depending on the source), which became the lasting recollection of a season in which Salaam, Erik Kramer, Curtis Conway and Jeff Graham set franchise records for offense but missed the playoffs.

Salaam never completely shook free of the knee issues, giving way to Raymont Harris over the next two seasons before he left as a free agent (he had signed just a three-year rookie deal, gambling on reaching free agency sooner) after rushing for just 608 yards combined for 1996-97. After stops with Green Bay and Cleveland in 1999, Salaam played briefly in Canada and finished his football with the Toronto Argonauts in 2004.

He managed his money and was comfortable in retirement. But he confided to former colleague Fred Mitchell of the Chicago Tribune several years ago that his partying and use of marijuana contributed to his downfall as a player. "I had no discipline,” Salaam said. “I had all the talent in the world. You know, great body, great genes. But I had no work ethic and I had no discipline. The better you get, the harder you have to work. The better I got, the lazier I got."

Salaam told Pro Football Weekly a couple of years ago that he remained a Bears fan. "It's always great sitting down every Sunday to watch the Bears play," Salaam said.

"Legendary organization, gave me my chance 19 years ago, so they'll always be very dear to my heart."

Tarik Cohen admits losing Jordan Howard ‘hurt me a little bit’

Tarik Cohen admits losing Jordan Howard ‘hurt me a little bit’

The Jordan Howard trade was tough for Tarik Cohen.

The two Bears running backs had formed a backfield bond over the last two seasons, and Cohen was there to support him during the rumors and eventual move to Philadelphia.

“I was really following after him as soon as I came to the Bears because I was one year behind him, so he could tell me everything to do because he had already been through it,” Cohen said Monday. “Losing him, it hurt me a little bit. I’m not going to lie. It hurt me, because that’s like my brother.”

Both running backs understand football is a business as they go their separate ways. Cohen’s “brother” will get to work in the city of brotherly love, while the North Carolina native continues to go out in his adopted community.

Cohen and Bears chairman George McCaskey met with members of Heartland Alliance’s Rapid Employment and Development Initiative in Chicago as part of the team’s effort to combat gun violence.

“I wear a ‘C’ on my helmet every Sunday, and every time I play a game,” Cohen said. “So I feel like it’s necessary for me to get inside the community and see what’s going on, and to help any way I can.”

With Howard exchanging his “C” for green wings, Cohen is now the running back a year ahead in Matt Nagy’s offense as Mike Davis joins the backfield.

The former Seattle Seahawk is just getting to know Halas Hall in the first phase of the offseason program, but he and Cohen had already connected through a mutual friend — fellow North Carolina native Todd Gurley.

“Mike, he’s like one of the guys,” Cohen said. “He’s already fitting in the locker room. Everybody’s already getting along cool.”

Just like that, life moves on without Howard in Chicago. Cohen expects Ryan Pace to add a rookie to the backfield too, and then it’ll be his turn to be the mentor.

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Why tight end is a significant need for the Bears in the NFL Draft

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USA Today

Why tight end is a significant need for the Bears in the NFL Draft

Most of the focus surrounding the Bears leading up to this week’s NFL Draft has, understandably, been on running backs. The Bears have to find more consistent production out of that unit, which is why general manager Ryan Pace is likely to draft a running back in addition to signing Mike Davis and trading Jordan Howard. 

But those necessary running game improvements don’t need to solely come from Tarik Cohen, Davis and a draft pick. There are other ways to help out the Bears’ running backs. And drafting a tight end may be a start. 

From a purely depth-based point of view, the Bears need to add more tight ends to their roster: Heading into this week’s NFL Draft, only Trey Burton, Adam Shaheen and Ben Braunecker man that position. Drilling down further: Burton is a “U” tight end, Shaheen is a “Y” and Braunecker can play both positions. 

So adding at least one more body to that room seems like an important task for Ryan Pace. But this is an issue that goes just beyond the number of players on the depth chart: The Bears, as an offense, would do well to be more effective when operating out of 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers). 

The issue for the Bears in that personnel grouping began in mid-August when Adam Shaheen hurt his foot in a preseason game against the Denver Broncos, which kept him sidelined until November. Dion Sims took his place and didn’t play well, both as a pass-catcher and run-blocker. When Shaheen came back, he wasn’t 100 percent — and, in his first game back, suffered a concussion against the Minnesota Vikings. 

So here’s how the Bears fared in 12 personnel compared to the league average, via SharpFootballStats.com:

  Play% Pass% Run% Pass. RTG TD/INT YPA YPC
Bears 17% 49% 51% 85.0 5/3 5.9 3.4
NFL Avg. 17% 49% 51% 101.9 145/53 8.1 4.3

A few things to unpack here: First, the Bears don't necessarily need to use more 12 personnel, they just have to be better when using it. Averaging 3.4 yards per carry with two tight ends ranked fourth worst in the NFL, behind the Indianapolis Colts, Pittsburgh Steelers and Miami Dolphins. More disappointing, though, is the Bears’ average of 5.9 yards per pass, lower than only the Jacksonville Jaguars (5.3). 

It's worth noting, too, that the league average passer rating is about 10 points higher when running 12 personnel compared to 11 personnel (which the Bears used on nearly two-thirds of their plays in 2018). 

A large part of the Bears' issues, again, were due to the “Y” tight end personnel after Shaheen’s injury. The Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles — relevant here for the Andy Reid connections to Matt Nagy — had much better personnel at tight end (Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz) and ran 12 personnel 28 and 36 percent of the time, respectively. No team used it on a higher percentage of their offensive plays than the Eagles. 

The best-case scenario is the Bears didn’t have the personnel to operate successfully with 12 personnel in 2018, and it doesn’t take much of a deep dive into the film to see why (Sims, who was released this spring, remains unsigned). Nagy and his offensive brain trust likely can scheme some better ways to utilize 12 personnel as well. 

The issue, then, is how the Bears go about improving their tight end personnel. 

The first step would be for Shaheen to not only stay healthy, but to consistently build on the potential the Bears saw in him two years ago. Shaheen has missed 13 games in two seasons and has only been targeted 20 times in the 19 games he’s played. That makes him much more of a projection in 2019 not just from a passing game perspective, but from a blocking one as well. 

“It will be important for him to stay healthy for 16 games, number one, as they talk about your best ability is your availability,” Nagy said. “We've got to have that, that's important. He got better at holding the line of scrimmage. I thought, as a Y tight end, holding the end of the line of scrimmage and the point, he can do that, he's a big guy. Then route running, he's not going to give you the wiggle-wiggle that some of the U tight ends do. But he's a bigger type person. They should be able to play faster this year because they know where they're going.”

Still, given that projecting Shaheen isn’t an exact science, the Bears should target a tight end at some point in this year’s draft, specifically someone who can play that “Y” position. While the Bears are confident in Braunecker’s ability to play both tight end positions — important given how poorly the offense responded to losing Trey Burton prior to losing to the Eagles in the playoffs — drafting someone who can play the “Y” would seem like a smart move. 

The Bears aren’t going to land one of the clear-cut two best tight ends in this year’s draft — Iowa’s duo of T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant — but there are a handful of tight ends who could interest the Bears in the middle rounds of the draft. San Jose State’s Josh Oliver (No. 95 on Pro Football Focus’ top 250) profiles as someone with the flexibility to play both tight end positions; Stanford’s Kaden Smith comes from the new “Tight End U” and could be had later in the draft. Those are just two names; perhaps it’s better to wait until after the Bears pick a tight end (if they do at all) to project how they could fit within the offense. 

Rookie tight ends rarely make significant impacts, especially those who fall to the middle rounds of the draft. But even if the Bears can improve blocking-wise from 12 personnel, that would have a positive impact on their ability to run the ball. 

And running the ball better means more opportunities for play action, which means more opportunities for open throws, which means more opportunities for Mitch Trubisky to lead scoring drives, which means more points. Everything works together — which is how drafting a tight end could help the Bears push toward the overall goal of scoring more points.