Is Tarik Cohen Fantasy Football's Next Tyreek Hill? - Footballguys

Tarik Cohen and Tyreek Hill have similar talents. New Bears head coach Matt Nagy is the link between the two. Could Cohen emerge as the Bears' ultimate weapon in 2018?

If you believe Tarik Cohen is too small to become a focal point of an NFL offense, move along. You obviously didn't mean to come here. You must have stumbled onto the wrong page while looking for advice on the best haircuts for aspiring news anchors, white outfits for family beach photos at Hilton Head, and CNBC's approved draft strategy that won't get you laughed out of your weekly golf foursome.

Convincing you that Cohen can follow in the footsteps of Darren Sproles, Warrick Dunn, or Lionel "Little Train" James is fruitless. Besides, the smell of fear mixed with your Old Spice is unbecoming.

By the way, you know that Old Spice was originally designed for women, right? No? So were Ford Mustangs, superheroes, and Marlboro Cigarettes. Somewhere, Cecil Lammey is having an identity crisis...

However, if you're here to explore the realms of the exceptional without blindly ruling it out, Little Train James is an apt starting point for this analysis. James, who shared a backfield with Bo Jackson at Auburn, was five-foot-six and 171 pounds — 5 pounds lighter than Cohen — and played in a harder-hitting era of football. An ace return specialist, James took on a larger role for the San Diego Chargers offense in 1985 and delivered as a PPR dynamo:

Top-12 PPR Running Backs (1985)

Running Back
FanPts
Rushes
RushYards
RushTDs
Receptions
RecYards
RecTDs
Roger Craig
388.6
214
1050
9
92
1016
6
Marcus Allen
382.4
380
1759
11
67
555
3
Walter Payton
318.4
324
1551
9
49
483
2
Joe Morris
302.8
294
1336
21
22
212
0
Gerald Riggs
291.6
397
1719
10
33
267
0
Lionel James
288.3
105
516
2
86
1027
6
Tony Dorsett
281.6
305
1307
7
46
449
3
James Brooks
277.5
192
929
7
55
576
5
James Wilder
277.1
365
1300
10
53
341
0
Greg Bell
257.9
223
883
8
58
576
1
Stump Mitchell
257.8
183
1006
7
47
502
3
Earnest Byner
251.2
244
1002
8
45
460
2

What you don't see from this column is that 1985 was the season that James set the record for more combined total yards (2,535) as a runner, receiver, and returner. Short scat backs with potential for tall volume aren't new to football; they just don't come around that often. Tyreek Hill could have easily been used primarily from the backfield if drafted by a different team.

The five-foot-eight, 185-pound runner-turned-receiver delivered top-5 production at his position last year and top-15 totals the year before as a rookie. After examining Hill's and Cohen's usage in 2017, there's enough in common between the two players that it isn't a stretch to see the Bears implement Cohen in a "Tyreek Hill role" in 2018.

Tarik Cohen: What We Learned in 2017

Cohen was my top situational running back in my 2017 pre-draft publication of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio:

An electrifying player, Cohen is a slippery athlete with phone-booth quicks and breakaway speed. He succeeded as the primary back at A&T because he could break down defenses with his improvisational flights. However, Cohen is not the second-coming of Barry Sanders and—with all respect to the excellent Lance Zierlein—he’s not Darren Sproles 2.0.
The Sproles reference is a good one for the role Cohen could eventually earn, but they don't match 1:1 in terms of skills and athletic ability. I think Zierlein understands this, but it might not be captured with a quick sound bite comparison. Sproles is a disciplined runner with great execution of his blocking schemes. Cohen is as undisciplined as one can imagine in this area.
Even so, he’s a good down-field receiver who tracks the ball as well as any back in this class. Give Cohen targets where he’s already in space, and he could wreak havoc on a defense. The role I see as a great fit for him is similar to the one Kansas City created for Tyreek Hill. Cohen is not as fast as Hill, but his vision, elusiveness, and creativity are on par.
Despite working with a conservative head coach in John Fox, Cohen earned immediate playing time. After watching his debut against the Atlanta Falcons, it appeared the Bears might use Cohen to his greatest capacity. By mid-season, we saw that the Bears occasionally used Cohen in dynamic ways but could have done a lot more.
  • Cohen flashed in the deep game during isolated moments of the season and methods to get him open should have been used more often.
  • The Bears had good ideas for getting Cohen mismatches but fell back on screen and slot receiver gadgetry that was predictable.
  • Cohen is a quality NFL running back who can turn broken plays into big plays.
  • Some of Cohen’s best runs were reversals of the field.
  • The Bears could save Cohen’s stamina by using more misdirection plays that give Cohen some of that reversal of field opportunity more efficiently.

Cohen earned 728 total yards and 53 receptions as a rookie earning scraps behind Jordan Howard in this conservative offense. Fox's regime hinted at what Cohen could provide for the Bears offense, but did little more than tease us. Enter former Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy, who implemented Hill as the Chiefs' ultimate weapon during the past two years.

How Nagy Can Use Cohen in the Hill Role

Now the Bears' head coach, Nagy has already said that Cohen will have a significant role in the offense — and both invoked the Hill comparison this spring, according to CBS reporter Jared Dublin:

"When I was at the combine, coaches would always ask me who I would compare myself to in the league," Cohen said, per The Chicago Tribune. "And I would always tell them Tyreek Hill. I feel that I can do the same kinds of things he does in the Kansas City offense. And now since we have their coach now [in Nagy], I feel like I have to live up to that. And I definitely look forward to being the same kind of playmaker."

Nagy himself is at the NFL combine this week, along with most of the other coaches and executives around the league. During his combine-opening press conference, Nagy was asked about Cohen's comparison. While he doesn't believe it's necessarily an exact match, Nagy was sure to note that the two players have some similar traits.

"Well, No. 1, size-wise you see that and you say, 'OK, they're pretty similar, right?'" Nagy said, per ESPN.com. "And then you have the speed, the shiftiness, the moves, everything that they do. They're similar in the fact that you can move them around and do different things.

"As you see on tape, the one thing if you go back and look at simple numbers, you're going to see that Cohen can run the ball a little bit more from the backfield. Not that Tyreek can't. So they're different. So I don't think it is fair to compare them but I do understand why people compare them, and for me, I am very excited to coach both of them and look forward to working with Cohen."

After studying Nagy's use of Hill, there are similarities in the way the previous Bears regime used Cohen as a vertical receiver and how Nagy used Hill. The biggest difference is that Nagy was smarter about how he used Hill in the ground game and targeted Hill with much greater volume in the passing game.

Chicago has a great opportunity to turn Cohen into its version of Tyreek Hill and still use Howard as its Kareem Hunt. If the line stays healthy, it could lead to Mitchell Trubisky earning a lot of wide open looks in the deep passing game.

Allen Robinson, Anthony Miller, Taylor Gabriel, Kevin White, Adam Shaheen, and Tre Burton all possess the athletic potential that Nagy needs to create a dynamic offense. If Robinson returns healthy, he'll draw the safety to his side of the field and potentially give Miller those one-on-one match-ups with a corner playing outside shade and giving up the post.

Robinson, White, Shaheen, and Burton all possess the size and skill after the catch to use them on mesh routes that give Cohen open space in the opposite direction. Burton has the seam-stretching speed to factor into four verticals looks with Robinson, Cohen, and either White or Gabriel. This personnel grouping could easily pit Cohen against a linebacker in the deep game.

The biggest issue is the learning curve for the receivers. If they're capable of learning a variety of roles and switching from slot to flanker to split end, Nagy's offense in Chicago will have as much flexibility as Kansas City. One player who possesses some of that flexibility is Gabriel — and there's a valid argument that Chicago uses Gabriel in the Hill role more than Cohen because he's taller, more refined as a receiver, and also dangerous in the open field.

However, many underestimate Cohen's receiving prowess that dates back to his college days at North Carolina A&T. As long as Nagy doesn't turn Cohen into a gadget in this offense, Cohen will earn targets in every zone of the field.

2018 Projections for Cohen

The quartet of David Dodds, Bob Henry, Jason Wood, and Maurile Tremblay have a conservative outlook for Cohen this year.

STATS AND PROJECTIONS

Year
Player
Games
Rushes
RuYards
RuTDs
Targets
Recs
ReYards
ReTDs
FumLost
2017
16
87
370
2
71
53
358
1
2
Year
Projector
Games
Rushes
RuYards
RuTDs
Targets
Recs
ReYards
ReTDs
FumLost
2018
15.3
98.0
419
2.1
52.0
406
2.1
1.7
2018
16.0
85.0
355
2.0
58.0
465
3.0
1.0
2018
16.0
100.0
470
3.0
59.0
480
2.0
1.0
2018
16.0
94.0
393
2.3
42.6
328
0.9
1.5

They don't trust the Bears increasing Cohen's touch totals. The range of their projected rushing attempts seems appropriate as long as Howard remains healthy. If Nagy implements smarter ways to create mismatches with the run game, it's plausible that Cohen earns another 50-100 yards on the ground based on big plays where the back has to do less work.

The passing game is where Cohen has the greatest opportunity to increase his production. Once again, the Footballguys crew isn't expecting a significant growth in volume. They're also expecting a similar yards-per-catch average as 2017.

This is where Nagy's offense should change Cohen's fantasy outlook because there's a greater likelihood that Cohen earns more down-field targets. Hill earned 61 and 75 catches during his two seasons in Kansas City, averaging 9.72 and 15.72 yards per catch.

In 2016, Hill earned 20 opportunities in the red zone and scored 4 times. In 2017, Hill's opportunities dipped to three and he didn't score once from the red zone. However, he still increased his touchdown totals from 6 to 7.

Like Hill during his first season, Cohen earned 19 red zone opportunities, scoring 3 times. With smarter play design and additional surrounding talent, Cohen has the skill and opportunity to increase his passing game production significantly.

Conservatively, let's say Cohen earns 12 yards per catch and 5 red zone touchdowns in this scheme. If he earns 65 catches, he'll have 780 yards.

Last year, Cohen was the No. 29 PPR running back. Keep his rushing totals the same and add 64 points to his passing game totals (12 additional receptions, 42 points in additional yards, and 12 points in additional touchdowns), and Cohen is the No. 12 back based on last year's production.

Again this is only if Cohen matches his 2017 rushing totals, earns 3 additional yards per catch (Hill's average increased six yards per catch), catches 12 additional passes, and scores 3 additional times. These are modest increases compared to Hill's growth from rookie to second-year option in Nagy's offense.

They're also modest increases considering that the Bears demonstrated that Cohen could be used in ways similar to Hill in 2017 but didn't do it enough. Cohen's current ADP ranges from the 65th to 86th pick and usually the 30th back off the board. Devonta Freeman is the 12th back off the board going between the 18th and 23rd pick, and Hill is often the 12th receiver of the board between picks 26-33.

If Cohen earns that modes increase as projected, he's a second-round value leaving drafts between rounds 6-8. If Nagy gives Cohen the full Hill treatment, Cohen could deliver elite production. Based on Nagy's statements that Cohen is a better runner, expect shorter passes but smarter passing design.

It still makes Cohen a candidate for top-15 fantasy PPR production at the running back position and a marquee Upside-Down Draft picks. He's also a fine pick as a team's No. 3 fantasy runner.

Will Cohen be Chicago's ultimate weapon in 2018? Not likely, but he'll closer to that title than many are projecting.