Tarik Cohen

2020 Bears Roster Review: Are Tarik Cohen and David Montgomery enough?

2020 Bears Roster Review: Are Tarik Cohen and David Montgomery enough?

Bears Roster Review is a weekly conversation about the state of the 2020 Bears roster from JJ Stankevitz and Cam Ellis. This week: running backs.

CAM ELLIS: JJ, hello. So far in this Roster Review series, we've talked about QBs, tight ends, and the O-Line. All of those conversations have a lot of depth to them! Competitions, new faces, etc. The Bears' running back room, however, feels about as cut-and-dry as any position group on the roster. Maybe there's still time to bring in a Mike Davis (who got the first handoff of 2019, you'll remember!) type, but it does feel like the Bears are just going to run back David Montgomery and Tarik Cohen and hope it goes better. 

J.J. STANKEVITZ: Exactly. I'm surprised they haven't added a veteran to slide in with Montgomery and Cohen, especially since the lack of OTAs and minicamps mean their two undrafted free agents - Napoleon Maxwell and Artavis Pierce - will be behind the curve when training camp starts. So we're looking at Montgomery-Cohen-Ryan Nall? It reads like the Bears don't think their running backs are the issue with their running game, which...feels accurate, right? 

ELLIS: Yeah, I think that's ultimately where the conversation on running backs goes pretty quickly with the Bears. Usage is going to be the most fascinating aspect of how Nagy and Co. deploy Montgomery/Cohen this season, IMO. I don't see as many A-gap runs for Cohen, and like Bill Lazor told us last week, getting David Montgomery involved in the passing game has got to be a priority. 

STANKEVITZ: So let's start with Cohen, because I see his issues last year being mostly on the coaching staff. Something Cohen said when talking to us earlier this month is that he felt like every time he motioned into the slot, he had a DB over him. When he was in the backfield, he kept meeting linebackers. The Bears' offense was predictable and disjointed last year, and it significantly hurt what Cohen could do. 

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Cohen is so, so good at taking advantage of bad matchups for the defense. But teams were able to cover him up pretty easily because the Bears' offense lacked anything that kept defenses on their toes. Not having a productive tight end - at all - probably hurt, too, but it was disappointing how few favorable matchups Cohen found in 2019. That's not his fault. 

ELLIS: No, it's not. Cohen's going to tear up defenses consistently when he can play comfortably within that 'gadget' role that Nagy loves to put him in, but not when other teams' defensive game plan revolves around him because they can afford to. What's interesting to me is that it's a contract year, which brings up how the Bears/any NFL team would pay Cohen. It'd behoove him to distance himself from the typical running back role – which isn't entirely in his control, obviously, but is something that may also be in the Bears' best interest on the field. 

STANKEVITZ: Yeah. Cohen is decidedly not a Running Back, even if that's technically his position title. He does so much as a receiver that he should, theoretically, be paid more like a slot guy rather than a running back (which means he'll make a lot more money).

But one other thought here, since I mentioned the tight ends earlier. I think even mild production from Jimmy Graham and/or Cole Kmet will significantly help Cohen get more of those favorable matchups. If the Bears couldn't create mismatches with their tight ends last year, they certainly weren't going to create them with Cohen. It's like what happened in the Wild Card game against the Eagles. No Trey Burton meant Cohen was the focus of Philly's defense, and it worked awfully well. 

ELLIS: They'd better hope it helps, because last season's numbers were abysmal. Per Sharp Football Analysis, the Bears were: 31st in Explosive Rushing Offense, 29th in Rushing Efficiency Offense, and 27th in Running Back Pass Efficiency Offense. There are plenty more I could fire off, but there's no need to get *that* dark on a Monday afternoon. Everyone was rightfully frustrated with the ground game last season, and it's important.

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That being said, I'd argue that within the vacuum of Matt Nagy's offense, getting production out of the RB passing game is maybe more important? Is that dumb? I've sort of given up on the idea that Matt Nagy's ever going to run the ball like The Olds on Twitter want him to.

STANKEVITZ: I would disagree, and I'm a Millennial who doesn't value running backs much! Matt Nagy needs to figure out a way to trust his run game and use it effectively to avoid the kind of predictability that defined last year's offense.

Even if it's building passing plays off running plays, he has to run the ball more. I'm not saying the Bears need to over-commit to the run but it has to be part of their offense. And here's the thing: They have a good running back on their roster in David Montgomery who can do just that!

Montgomery isn't explosive but he's such a tough, physical, agile runner who's great at grinding out extra yards. He's the kind of guy who could have a really steady, solid year with 300-ish carries. He just needs to get them.

ELLIS: Yeah, I was SOLD on Montgomery during last year's camp almost immediately. And I still think he's going to be a good piece for them. It looked like there was some hesitant/indecisive running at times last season, but it's clear as day that when he gets into a rhythm, he's a pro player. I remember watching him in the Chargers game last season (27-135-1TD) and wondering what'd be so wrong with the Bears doing that more often. And yeah, it's too small of a sample size to take super seriously, but Montgomery's two best games of 2019 were also his highest volume games in terms of rushes. He got 20+ carries in 4 games last year, and hit over 80 yards in 3 of them. That's not nothing.

STANKEVITZ: It's not! He's the kind of guy who can wear down a defense over the course of a game because he's so physical. Did you also know Montgomery averaged a full yard per carry more from the shotgun (4.2) than under center (3.2)? He had just as many TDs from shotgun as he did from under center (3), too. So it's not necessarily as simple as going to the I-formation and handing Montgomery the ball. 

ELLIS: I did not know that!

STANKEVITZ: The more you know! 

ELLIS: So I think the last real question here is: is there a vet coming into the room between now and 2025, when football resumes? There are some names out that there would have crushed in Madden 14, and I'd argue that the Bears don't really have an answer if Montgomery goes down. Can we talk ourselves into a former Pro Bowler?!

STANKEVITZ: Let me just Google if Carlos Hyde has signed anywhere yet. *checks* Ah! He signed with the Seahawks. How about Devonta Freeman? *checks* He's still out there!

ELLIS: Marshawn Lynch is technically listed!

STANKEVITZ: Technically! 

But to answer your question, the Bears are probably going to sign a veteran running back at some point in 2020, if there is football (which is a big if). Freeman is the biggest name out there; someone like Theo Riddick could make a bit of sense, too. 

Asking Montgomery to take 250-300 carries is a lot; I have no doubt he can do it, but running backs get banged up all the time. And Cohen isn't a true backup running back, so that would lead us to Nall or one of the other UDFAs. That's not the kind of guy the Bears need for Nagy to trust the running game. 

ELLIS: Yeah, I agree there too. Not exactly the most riveting roster review! Bonus question: what is the *lowest* rush total the Bears will tally in 2020? Does Nagy have it in him to stay under 10? Would he be let in the building on Monday? I can almost see the tweets now.

STANKEVITZ: Hoo boy. If we have another single digit game it's gonna be bad! It'd be a failure of a ton of folks: The offensive line/tight ends, Nagy, Juan Castillo, Bill Lazor, Clancy Barone...yeesh. How quickly we forget the days where John Fox had Mitch Trubisky throw seven times...and beat a playoff team in the 2017 Carolina Panthers!

ELLIS: Maybe he knew all along! 

Bears RB Tarik Cohen's NFL future hinges on 2020 contract year

Bears RB Tarik Cohen's NFL future hinges on 2020 contract year

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

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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. 

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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.

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Tarik Cohen admits he didn't take care of his body in 2019

Tarik Cohen admits he didn't take care of his body in 2019

Much has been made of Mitch Trubisky's regression in 2019 when his career outlook went from a player on the rise to a quarterback in a competition for the starting job this summer. The defense received its fair share of criticism, too, after failing to live up to the lofty preseason expectations that surrounded the group. But not much attention has been paid to Tarik Cohen, whose disappearing act from the offense was one of the team's biggest setbacks.

Cohen emerged as a true offensive weapon for Matt Nagy in 2018 after setting career highs in rushing yards (444) and receiving yards (725). His eight total touchdowns were also a career watermark.

Cohen was anything but a weapon last season, however. His combined yardage was less than what he totaled as a receiver the year before. Not great. 

So, what gives? According to Cohen, part of the reason for his regression was his body. The wear and tear of 2019 took its toll.

‘‘I’ve been doing yoga now, stretching more often and just like the small training room — in-house things you do to keep your body durable,’’ Cohen said. ‘‘And to keep the wear-and-tear of the season off of you longer. I really slacked on that. I always had older guys that would keep me on that, keep me in line.’’

The older vet Cohen is referring to is Benny Cunningham, who the Bears released last August.

An explanation for Cohen's lack of production helps, at least a little. But it's concerning what that explanation is. Now entering this fourth season in the league, Cohen should be fully assimilated to life in the NFL and what he has to do to keep his body fresh for a full 16 games. It's details like this that can quickly turn a team from a 12-4 contender into a middling 8-8 club.

Cohen should have some extra motivation to be at his best in 2020. He's scheduled for unrestricted free agency next offseason and if he produces like he did in 2018, he'll be an appealing target for teams looking to add a satellite back.