Fantasy Football: What Should We Do With Tarik Cohen?
Wow. Just wow.
On a gross day of opening football that saw 10 of the 12 games go under the Vegas total, Chicago Bears rookie back Tarik Cohen stood out as one of the few bright spots. Even after an offseason of praise for the rookie, a dominant preseason, and reports coming out prior to Week 1 that he had earned himself a regular role, most still weren't ready to buy into the hype.
In fact, hardly anyone deemed him worthy of a roster spot. Last week, we ran a piece on 12 barely-owned players to watch, and Cohen was owned in only 2.3% of leagues as of opening night on Thursday. After racking up 113 total yards and a touchdown on five carries and eight catches (12 targets), Cohen's ownership is sure to spike this week.
Once the dust has cleared, the real question is, "Well now, what do we do with Cohen?" Do you make an offer to the owner lucky enough to have the top waiver claim? If you claimed him, or perhaps already were savvy enough to own him, do you ride it out and hope that he continues to steal work from Jordan Howard? Or is it time to sell high?
While it might sound like a tough task to "sell high" on a player that very few people knew about a week ago, it might not be as hard as you think. For starters, it's fantasy football, and everyone's favorite thing to do is overreact. Secondly, with backs such as David Johnson and Danny Woodhead going down, and borderline starters such as Bilal Powell, Joe Mixon, Frank Gore, Paul Perkins, and Ameer Abdullah all looking discouraging in Week 1, owners may be feeling the heat at the position. You can take advantage of that and Cohen's explosive debut and sell him while he's hot.
Yes, He's Awesome. Does It Matter Though?
This is by no means an attempt to discredit Cohen from a talent perspective. The dude earned the nickname "The Human Joystick" in college, and for good reason. He is a blur out there and has the ability to turn any routine play into a huge gain. Like this one, for example.
#Bears TD drive Highlighted By 46 yard run from Tarik Cohen. #Bears pic.twitter.com/RlzbxBTxSZ
— Bears Barroom (@BearsBarroom) September 10, 2017
There's one thing that everyone seems to be forgetting amid all the Cohen-mania. They still have this guy named Jordan Howard. who is pretty darn good at running the football. Howard ranked second in the league in rushing yards last year, despite starting just 13 games, and his 5.2 yards per carry trailed only LeSean McCoy's 5.4 mark.
Even for all his struggles in the passing game, Howard was treated as an absolute workhorse last season, accounting for 71.6% of the team's halfback snaps after taking hold of the starting job. That number was down in Week 1, as he handled 38 snaps (54.3% of halfback snaps) to Cohen's 28. While it is clear that Cohen will cut into Howard's workload some -- especially in negative game scripts, it is also clear that Howard is still going to play a meaningful role.
So, as long as Cohen is sharing the backfield with Howard, how much volume can we really expect for the rookie running back?
To begin to answer that question, let's examine how offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains has handled his backfield market shares in the past. In his two seasons as an offensive coordinator, Loggains has given his lead back 78.4% and 72.2% of the halfback carries, respectively. The 3.3 targets per game that Howard saw last season was nearly identical with the 3.25 targets per game Chris Johnson averaged for Loggains in 2013. Neither of those things bode well for Cohen as a change-of-pace and pass-catching back.
Nah, this ain't some weird LeSean McCoy party. But, some things just aren't for couples, ya know? Just like couples have brunch and horrible matching t-shirts, there are some things that are reserved for us single folk. Who are you spending all day bro-ing out with and watching football? Who's the group who goes downtown together? Probably your single friends.
Fantasy football is a singles only game when it comes to the running back position. Now, sure, there are some cool couples who can make going out with friends on Friday night and getting up for Saturday couples brunch work (I'm looking at you Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman). But, for the most part, backfields aren't able to sustain two successful backs in fantasy.
Over the past five seasons, there have been an average of 2.2 backfields who have supported two startable (top-24) fantasy running backs in PPR leagues. The average finish of the "lead back" was as the 13th-highest scorer, while the second back finished as the 20th back on average. And these are the outlier backfields from each season! So, if Howard stays healthy this year, we're likely looking at a low-end RB2 finish as a absolute best-case scenario for Cohen as the team's change-of-pace back.
For multiple backs out of the same backfield to have fantasy success, that team needs to score a lot of points. Makes sense, right? Over the past five seasons, the teams that were able to sustain two top-24 PPR backs ranked, on average, 12th in the league in scoring, putting up 25.6 points per game. Chicago ranked 29th with 17.4 points per game last season. If you take away a New York Jets team that produced last season's 21st and 22nd scoring backs, 9 of the past 10 teams to have two backs in the top-24 in fantasy have ranked in the top-half of the league in scoring.
Don't let outliers over the years such as Freeman and Coleman or Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill skew reality. For a team to produce two usable fantasy assets in the same backfield, they need to be one of the league's better offenses. The Mike Glennon-led Bears simply are not that.
Speaking of Glennon, we can probably stop with this narrative that he doesn't throw to receivers. His career doesn't back that up (although the Bears are so thin at receiver, he may target his running backs more than usual in 2017). Instead, perhaps that was just the gameplan last week, because the Atlanta Falcons are actually really good at covering receivers. With Desmond Trufant healthy, the Falcons have a strong secondary, but they struggle to take away the middle of the field.
Specifically, they are a beautiful matchup for pass-catching backs. Atlanta was the fifth-worst team against the run last year according to our metrics, and the defense was dreadful when covering opposing backs out of the backfield. They allowed more targets, receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns to running backs than any team in the league.
When you combine that with the fact that the Bears found themselves trailing for a large chunk of the game, the contest couldn't have been scripted better for Cohen.
Cohen is likely worth a top waiver claim or a good bit of free-agent-acquisition money in most leagues, particularly PPR formats, but he's such a hot commodity, you almost have to explore the trade market if you get him.
Again, none of this is to take anything away from Cohen the player. He certainly has the talent to be an exciting prospect in dynasty leagues and could have sustainable value in season-long leagues if anything were to happen to Howard. However, as it stands now, it's worth seeing if you can sell high in season-long leagues, especially in non-PPR formats.
Odds are this Bears' offense won't be able to support two useable fantasy running backs, even if Cohen is likely to have some good weeks when Chicago is installed as a heavy underdog. If you think Cohen will end up out-producing Howard over the course of 2017, then by all means hold onto the rookie. But if you think otherwise, there may not be a better time all season to sell Cohen than right now if you can get good value in return.