Outside of the euphoria surrounding the Chicago Bears’ 2021 draft class, which includes highly-regarded quarterback Justin Fields and offensive tackle Teven Jenkins, one of the plus points for Matt Nagy’s side heading into the new season would be the return of explosive running back/return specialist Tarik Cohen.
The 26-year-old’s recovery from an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury could almost be considered like a new signing for the men from Soldier Field, given that Cohen was injured in Week 3 of the 2020 campaign against the Atlanta Falcons.
However, as anticipation mounted ahead of the Bears’ summer training camp, the shock news was that Cohen would start camp on the physically unable-to-perform list – despite being ten months into his recovery period. Reports from journalists on site described the 2018 All-Pro as ‘walking gingerly’, heightening fans’ concern.
With a lack of training camp and presumably pre-season game time under his belt, it seems unlikely that Cohen will be anywhere near ready for the season opener at Los Angeles on 12 September – especially for a player that is so reliant on his knees for the twisting, turning runs that have become his trademark.
Recovery likely to be ‘weeks not days’
Coach Nagy’s comments threw more uncertainty on the situation during camp. On 3 August, he told reporters that Cohen was ‘weeks, not days’ away, and then shifted his outlook a couple of days later, insisting that it was ‘unfair’ to put a timescale on the North Carolina-born player’s recovery.
Nagy said: “I would not say days, you know. I would lean more toward weeks for him.
“I don’t want to put a timeline. Like you say that, and that is very general for me. It’s all going to be day-by-day on how much growth he has or improvement.
“I just feel like he is doing everything he can to get that thing right. So, I hate to put a benchmark on it or a time frame, you know. It’s just neat seeing him rehab and in the meantime that is all we can ask him to do.”
Just two days later, Nagy spoke about not putting a timescale on Cohen’s recovery.
He said: “I don’t think that was fair what I said to Tarik in regards to days and weeks. That’s not fair to somebody, to put a timeline on somebody. These guys are all different in how they react to things and what they do.”
Who can replace Tarik Cohen for the start of the season?
What remains unclear from Nagy’s comments is whether Bears fans should expect to see Cohen sooner rather than later or be resigned to the player not being available until deep into the regular season.
Reading between the lines, it is likely to be the latter. So, if that is the case, who can the Bears call upon to fill the gaps in the back field and on return in the interim?
Nagy has pinned his hopes on former Kansas City standout Damien Williams. The 29-year-old’s previous NFL game was SuperBowl LIV, scoring two touchdowns as the Chiefs bested the 49ers 31-20.
Williams sat out the entire 2020 season due to his mother being diagnosed with stage IV cancer, and he was released from the Chiefs in March.
In all, Williams played 27 times in his two seasons with the Chiefs, starting nine. He rushed for 4.7 yards per carry for a total 754 yards on 161 carries, with 13 touchdowns.
The Bears struggled at punt return in Cohen’s absence last term, and they look set to face problems again this time around. According to Chicago Beat’s Nicholas Moreano, only rookie Khalil Herbert has been the only player getting in on the punt return action so far for the Bears.
Herbert was a kick returner during his days at Kansas and Virginia Tech. He caught the eye with 18 returns for an average of 24.8 yards per return. The 23-year-old could been given the nod to take Cohen’s spot on special teams.