By Robert Zeglinski
One place the NFL lacks, among many areas, is in consistent scouting for talent at historic black colleges. With the NFL Draft this month, there’s a emphasis on blue blood prospects from big-time programs and small school guys that stand out among inferior competition. Every niche from Division I to junior colleges is mostly filled. But it seems there’s a lacking clear focus on talented players in black college football.
It’s a shame because there are naturally gifted players at black colleges that can not only make it at the professional level, but excel and shine past the competition altogether. Some of the greatest NFL players of all-time – Jerry Rice, Walter Payton, Deacon Jones, Richard Dent, Art Shell – all featured at historically black colleges as amateurs before carving out transcendent Hall of Fame careers.
One of the modern guys is none other than Tarik Cohen – who after balling at North Carolina A&T as a three-time MEAC Player of the Year in his collegiate career – has quickly become one of pro football’s most feared weapons in two years. Cohen, standing at a meager 5-foot-6 and 179 pounds, has never let his size diminish what he can accomplish against players simply too slow to catch him. If you watch him play and take the shortest passes for touchdowns, it’s as if the opposition doesn’t even belong on the same field. Cohen is that quick, that fast, and that special, and the NFL would do well to attempt to find more players of his mold.
The lack of a focus on scouting out NFL players from historically black colleges is an issue near and dear to Cohen. The always vocal star felt he needed to speak out on it last year after matching one of his HBCU counterparts in Rice with a single-game record.
Not that he doesn’t say it regularly on any of his social platforms.
“It means a lot to me, because Jerry (Rice) came from an HBCU also,” Cohen said after becoming only the second player in NFL history to catch at least 12 passes for 150 yards and one touchdown, to go with a passing touchdown. “I just want to keep showing people that there are players at HBCU’s, so everybody should scout them more. And the players coming out of high school should also respect the HBCU’s more and choose them as an option.”
Cohen’s rise from being overlooked due to his size and background to morphing into a premier weapon for one of the NFL’s best teams is something to marvel at. It also brings up an important coming development for the Bears’ future: How do they keep the boisterous star around for the long-term, if at all?
The Bears need Cohen for the time being as they sit smack dab in the middle of a Super Bowl window. But it gets eminently interesting when his rookie contract from 2017 expires in two years.
Career statistics: 124 receptions, 1,078 yards, six touchdowns, 814 rushing yards, five touchdowns, 62 punt returns, 683 yards, one touchdown (All 32 games played through two years, 11 starts)
Beyond being like the uncontrollable Tasmanian Devil from The Looney Tunes that leaves nothing but destruction in his wake every time he gets the ball in his hands (though “Taz” might have his work cut out for him), Cohen is unquestionably the Bears’ best home run threat. He’s the first and last option to get a chunk play in crunch time when Matt Nagy and company need a rally. He’s the clutch, all-around talent capable of putting his offense on his back, no matter how small he is. The engine that drives the rest of Chicago’s budding, still-growing attack.
Look no further than Cohen being the Bears’ leading receiver in 2018 with 71 receptions. Or his 170 total touches across carries and receptions, second only to the now-departed and limited Jordan Howard. The Bears give the ball to Cohen a lot because they know he can handle it. They understand he keeps their offense unpredictable and flowing at a high pace like no one else.
It’s important to understand that while most of Cohen’s snaps have come from the backfield to this stage in his career, the Bears almost exclusively use him as a receiver to the contrary. In last season’s games where Cohen didn’t produce much as a pass target (25 receiving yards or less), the Bears’ offensive performance on the whole suffered.
As examples, against the Packers in Week 1 – where Cohen had three catches for 16 yards – the Bears scored just six second half points in a collapse and had a meager 294 total yards. Against the Cardinals in Week 3, where Cohen had three catches for 15 yards, the Bears scored just 14 points and followed that with a 5-of-14 third down efficiency.
When Cohen exploded, such as in back-to-back 90-yard minimum receiving days against the Buccaneers and Dolphins, the Bears offense flourished. First they enjoyed 483 yards and 48 points against Tampa Bay in a complete evisceration, then 467 yards and 28 points at the expense of Miami in the heat. While the Bears would fall in South Florida, the point of Cohen’s presence being a galvanizing factor in an offense thriving can’t be lost. This will continue to be an underlying theme for the Bears as Nagy and company think of more and more creative ways to implement their diminutive superstar; the true next coming of Darren Sproles.
The main issue with keeping Cohen around Halas Hall past a two-year championship window over the next two seasons is whether he’s worth compensating considering the position he plays. If he’s a running back first, which I would argue against, then the Bears aren’t likely to pay him a handsome amount of money. It’ll be a long time before the Bears pay a running back handsomely on a second contract again. If he’s a receiver first, his production will likely have to be taken up a notch for the Bears to write a decent check out. There is a special teams element to Cohen’s skill set, too. But as that phase of the game begins to be written off more and more by the league, the value someone brings there is diminished.
This is a similar problem Cohen’s unique predecessor in Sproles ran into at the start of his career. After shining with the Chargers for four seasons from 2007 to 2010 (after his role was expanded), the Chargers then elected not to keep their small running back around. Sproles would move on to continue being his usual electric self with the Saints for a few seasons before eventually finding a prominent role with the Eagles. From one high-flying offense to the next.
Unless Cohen becomes particularly elite at one specific skill – he still doesn’t score enough touchdowns (11 in two years as a part-time player) to warrant the “home run threat” label being so viable – he’ll either likely have to settle for less money from the Bears, or move onto to greener pastures like his unofficial mentor. It’s the cruel nature of a largely disloyal business that doesn’t reward the brightest starts despite plenty of evidence saying they’re worth it … to a degree.
If the Bears do end up extending Cohen after the 2019 or 2020 season, expect a deal in the realm of a four-year contract worth $20 million with roughly $10 million guaranteed. It’s a slight uptick from what Sproles once received from the Saints, but it’s an uptick nonetheless.
For the Bears’ sake, they should be thanking their lucky stars they don’t have to worry about Cohen’s uncomfortable future in their uniform for a little while longer. They can instead focus him on relentlessly breaking defenders’ ankles and letting him rub it in in the only way he can.
Robert is an editor, writer, and producer. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.