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9 players to watch in 2021: Tarik Cohen

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The following is the seventh of nine stories featuring an ascending young Bears player heading into the 2021 season:

Tarik Cohen, running back

How he was acquired

Cohen was selected by the Bears in the fourth round of the 2017 draft (119th overall) out of North Carolina A&T, where he became the MEAC's all-time leading rusher with 5,619 yards. As a senior in 2016, Cohen set single-season school rushing records with 1,588 yards and 19 touchdowns.

"We call him a joker back, so really a good third-down back out of the backfield," Bears general manager Ryan Pace said after drafting the explosive 5-6, 191-pounder. "He can separate with his routes, really a dynamic player that dominated at that level. Really excited to add him. He's one of those guys who's really fun to watch. You start watching one game, two games, three games, pretty soon you're watching his whole season because he's just a really entertaining, electric, exciting player."

Nicknamed "The Human Joystick" because of his electrifying running style, Cohen set all-time school records with 6,564 all-purpose yards and 61 touchdowns—with 56 coming on runs, three on receptions and two on passes. He also averaged 6.5 yards per carry, caught 98 passes for 945 yards and competed on North Carolina A&T's track team as a sprinter.

In taking the leap from a small school to the NFL, Cohen was confident that he would make a smooth transition.

"I'm expecting it to be a pretty noticeable jump, but I don't feel like I've reached my potential yet in terms of being an athlete," Cohen said the day he was drafted. "I feel like I can definitely get in better shape as far as muscles. I can definitely get the mental aspect of the game down pat more. I'm just ready to see where I can be and how I can compete on this next level."

Prior to 2020 season

Cohen had a breakout rookie year in 2017. He rushed for 370 yards and two touchdowns on 87 carries, caught 53 passes for 358 yards and one TD, averaged 9.4 yards with one touchdown on 29 punt returns, averaged 22.4 yards on 26 kickoff returns and even threw a touchdown pass. In the process, Cohen became the first NFL rookie to generate a TD on a rush, reception, pass and punt return in a single season since Bears Hall of Famer Gale Sayers in 1965 and the first NFL player to do so since Terry Metcalf in 1975.

In 2018, Cohen displayed his tremendous versatility for the second straight season. He became only the second player in NFL history to gain at least 500 yards via rushing, receiving, punt returns and kickoff returns in his first 25 career games. Cohen lined up all over the field, excelling in different roles and creating matchup nightmares for opposing defenses. He led all NFL running backs with seven catches of at least 25 yards, including a 70-yard touchdown in a 24-10 win over the Jets Oct. 28 at Soldier Field that was the Bears' longest play from scrimmage in 2018.

Cohen's most productive game in 2018 came Dec. 2 against the Giants. He caught 12 passes for 156 yards, rushed for 30 yards on eight carries and threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Miller as time expired in regulation to force overtime. In the process, Cohen joined Hall of Famer Jerry Rice as the only players in NFL history to record at least 150 receiving yards, 12 catches and a touchdown pass in a game.

Cohen capped the season by being voted to the Pro Bowl and named first-team All-Pro as a punt returner after leading the NFL with 411 punt return yards.

In 2019, Cohen rushed for 213 yards on 64 carries and caught a career-high 79 passes for 456 yards and three touchdowns. But he didn't produce the big plays that he had generated in his first two NFL seasons, with his yards-per-catch dropping from 10.2 in 2018 to 5.8 in 2019.

2020 season

Hours before their Week 2 game against the Giants, the Bears signed Cohen to a three-year contract extension through 2023.

"We're extremely excited about being able to extend Tarik," Pace said at the time. "He's a versatile player that has a big impact on offense and special teams. We love his character and he's been a spark plug for our team since we drafted him. Tarik and I both feel he's a young, ascending player with a lot of high-level years left in this league and we are glad he will be with us in the years to come."

Cohen was pleased that the Bears had maintained their confidence in him after a disappointing 2019 campaign.

"They probably saw that I had one bad season, but my seasons prior to that were good," Cohen said at the time. "They also see where I can go from here. They know that I had a bad year last year and they saw the way I approached this offseason, putting last year behind me and just trying to be a better me and fit better into the offense and become that weapon that they see me as."

Unfortunately, Cohen was lost for the season a week later when he sustained a torn ACL in a win over the Falcons. But he is expected to be ready to return for the start of training camp and will once again be counted on to be a key contributor on offense and special teams.

Check out the best photos of the 2020 season—taken by Bears photographers—featuring players on the offensive side of the ball.

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