Refocused Bears RB Tarik Cohen ready to ‘ball out’ as he faces end of contract

If Cohen gets back to the all-purpose threat he was in 2018, it’s a win-win. He’ll get a big payout on a new contract, and coach Matt Nagy will have a playmaker who factors prominently in the game plan.

SHARE Refocused Bears RB Tarik Cohen ready to ‘ball out’ as he faces end of contract
Tarik Cohen (left) led the Bears with 1,169 yards from scrimmage in 2018, but that total fell by nearly half last season.

Tarik Cohen (left) led the Bears with 1,169 yards from scrimmage in 2018, but that total fell by nearly half last season.

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Tarik Cohen literally can’t afford another down season.

He has the intertwined motivations of erasing a frustrating 2019 performance, which he admits “was definitely not my best work,” and playing for the big contract he thought he’d already have by now.

The Bears couldn’t extend his contract this offseason after he plunged from being arguably their best offensive player to being a minimal factor. And other teams will be similarly hesitant in free agency next year if Cohen doesn’t turn it around.

“Going into a contract year, I already know [there’s] only one thing that matters, and it’s how I play on the field this season,” he said after practice Tuesday. “It’s on me to perform well this year. I’ve got to ball out this year.”

The Bears would appreciate that.

Cohen starred at running back in coach Matt Nagy’s first season in 2018, leading the Bears with 1,169 yards from scrimmage. He was a threat as a receiver, catching a team-best 71 passes, and was their most effective runner. On average, getting the ball in Cohen’s hands was worth 6.9 yards.

Not only was he productive, but he also was unpredictable, opening up other elements of the offense by forcing defenses into predicaments of how to cover him. The Bears ideally want opponents so off-balanced that they try to defend Cohen with a safety when it turns out he’s running and with a linebacker when he’s going out for a pass. The more guesswork before the snap, the better.

Cohen’s incredible speed and elusiveness earned him the nicknames “The Human Joystick” (because he moves like he’s in a video game) and “Chicken Salad” (you can figure that one out on your own).

But he wasn’t either of those things last season. And that’s why he’s in the wait-and-see category rather than getting a new contract virtually automatically.

What happened to this guy? His yards per touch dropped to 4.7, and there were times when he was barely noticeable. In Weeks 7 and 8, as the Bears fought to steer out of a tailspin, he played just 16 snaps each game. He got five carries or fewer in all but three games.

Cohen put up six games of 100-plus yards of offense in his first two seasons and averaged 73.1 yards per game in 2018. He topped 73 yards just twice last season.

Anyone who thought he didn’t look quite right was correct. He didn’t feel right and said a poor commitment to offseason workouts led to his body failing him.

“I didn’t feel the same explosion that I would usually feel, the same speed and the same fire,” he said. “Also, having a losing season would make you feel that way. But mostly I feel like it was the fact that I didn’t have the best offseason.”

Cohen added that “a whole lot of family issues” made life chaotic leading up to last season, but the recent offseason went much better.

The contract implications surely will have some impact as Cohen faces the end of his four-year, $3 million rookie deal. It’s difficult to predict the market as the NFL lowers its salary cap to account for losses during the pandemic, but Cohen is playing for the difference between a prove-it deal and long-term financial security.

From Nagy’s perspective, he needs a dependable playmaker. Offensively, the Bears know what they’ll get from receiver Allen Robinson. Everything else is undetermined. It’d be helpful to add Cohen to the list of certainties.

Nagy, as always, is optimistic about a bounce-back season.

“He’s really dedicated right now and trying to be coachable,” he said. “There were some things we saw last year that we thought he could do better. He’s hit that full steam ahead.”

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