Fantasy Football: Is Tarik Cohen Destined to Take a Step Back This Year?

Chicago Bears running back Tarik Cohen was one of the steals of 2018 fantasy football drafts. Cohen finished the year as the RB11 in PPR leagues, a remarkable accomplishment for a player who clearly was not the bellcow in his own offense. Cohen finished with exactly 100 fewer touches than teammate Jordan Howard (270 to 170).

It was Cohen's role in the passing game which allowed him to outperform Howard, as he racked up 71 receptions on 91 targets.

As impressive as Cohen's 2018 looked, it's hard to trust a player who puts up what appears to be an outlier season. We simply don't see many number-two running backs on their own team emerge as number-one fantasy options. So is this performance sustainable, or should we expect Cohen to come crashing back to earth in 2019?

Historical Comparisons

During the 20-year span from 1998 through 2017, there were 17 running backs who racked up at least 90 targets despite not being their team's primary ball carrier. Five of those running backs were young players who would become the feature back the following season -- since that's not a likely scenario for Cohen, we'll throw them out of this sample.

That leaves us with 12 running backs who saw at least 90 targets without being the primary ball carrier and were also not the primary ball carrier the following year. Here's the list:

Player Team Targets Next-Year Targets
Duke Johnson 2017 CLE 93 62
Danny Woodhead 2015 SD 106 8 (Injured)
Darren Sproles 2012 NO 104 89
Darren Sproles 2011 NO 111 104
Reggie Bush 2006 NO 121 73
Larry Centers 2001 BUF 105 63
Larry Centers 2000 WSH 93 105 (with BUF)
Richie Anderson 2000 NYJ 125 57
Tiki Barber 2000 NYG 95 98
Larry Centers 1999 WSH 90 91
Tiki Barber 1999 NYG 91 95
Larry Centers 1998 ARZ 94 90 (with WSH)

Since Danny Woodhead played just two games the following year, we really have only 11 players as historical examples. But there are some encouraging numbers among that group.

Six of the 11 players also received at least 90 targets the following the season -- and a seventh, Darren Sproles in 2012, fell just one target shy.

According to Fantasy Football Calculator, Cohen has an average draft position (ADP) as the 28th running back off the board in 12-team PPR formats. Among these 11 historical examples, Duke Johnson (RB37 in 2018), Larry Centers (RB42 in 2002) and Richie Anderson (RB50 in 2001) were the only players who failed to rank 28th or higher in ADP the season following their 90-target year. It's also worth pointing out that Centers and Anderson were fullbacks. Among the players who most closely compare to Cohen as an athlete, only Johnson -- who suffered to due to the addition of Nick Chubb -- failed to live up to Cohen's current ADP.

So despite the fact that Cohen produced an uncommon stat line in 2018, based on these historical comparisons, we can say running backs with similar roles tend to maintain fantasy value the following year.

His Role in Chicago's Offense Is Locked In

Bears receivers Allen Robinson and Anthony Miller were both banged up last year and missed some time. So it's reasonable to wonder if Cohen's production in the passing game was propped up by strong performances in their absence. If this were true, a decline in Cohen's production would be a logical expectation. In reality, it appears as though Cohen benefited from the Bears' offense being at full strength -- not the other way around.

Here's a breakdown of Cohen's target share when the Bears five primary passing game weapons (Cohen, Robinson, Miller, Trey Burton and Taylor Gabriel) were all healthy, compared to his target share when at least one of them was sitting out.

Stat Everyone Healthy At Least 1 Injury
Tarik Cohen Target Share 18.6% 16.0%

If Cohen has a set role in the offense, regardless of who's lining up at wide receiver, that obviously bodes well for his ability to carry last year's success over to 2019. And based on head coach Matt Nagy's track record, it's likely he views Cohen as an essential part of the offense.

Since Nagy has just one year as a head coach and one year as an offensive coordinator under his belt, we're still learning what his ideal offense looks like. That said, prior to 2018, he spent his entire career coaching under Andy Reid in Philadelphia and Kansas City. Dating back to Nagy's first year as an offensive assistant in 2011, here's how his teams' primary passing-catching backs were used in the offense:

Team RB Tgt Per Gm
2018 CHI Tarik Cohen 5.7
2017 KC Kareem Hunt 3.9
2016 KC Spencer Ware 3.0
2015 KC Charcandrick West 2.3
2014 KC Jamaal Charles 3.9
2013 KC Jamaal Charles 6.9
2012 PHI LeSean McCoy 5.6
2011 PHI LeSean McCoy 4.6

Collectively, this group averaged 4.5 targets per game (72 targets over 16-game season) -- that's below Cohen's 2018 pace but probably enough of a workload to allow him to match his current ADP.

New Competition

Part of the reason for Cohen's ADP falling so far below his 2018 rank is the Bears' addition of third-round pick David Montgomery.

During Cohen's first two seasons in Chicago, Howard was the feature back, and Howard played only a minor role in the passing game, including a career-low 26 targets in 2018.

It's possible Nagy will allow Montgomery to play a bigger pass-game role than Howard did, which would diminish Cohen's value. However, Montgomery saw just 25 targets (2.1 per game) during his final season at Iowa State, according to Sports Info Solutions. With that said, Montgomery did see three targets in his preseason debut -- so at the very least, the Bears are testing him out in that area.

Chicago also added Mike Davis, who led all Seattle Seahawks running backs with 34 catches on 42 targets a season ago.

How Montgomery and Davis will affect Cohen's opportunities will probably remain an unknown until we've seen a few regular season games play out. So despite many reasons to believe Cohen has the potential to repeat his strong 2018 performance, it's probably best to play it safe and reserve some skepticism.

That said, with an ADP of RB28, it appears as though the general public has already applied that skepticism to Cohen's draft stock. As a result, you should feel comfortable taking him in that range -- and could probably justify reaching a little higher if you have a strong feeling about him. Between the historical comparisons and Nagy's tendency to lean heavily on running backs in the passing game, Cohen appears to be a safe bet to live up to that ADP, and, as 2018 proved, his ceiling is much higher.