The moment North Carolina A&T running back Tarik Cohen was selected in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL Draft, the name Darren Sproles immediately started trending everywhere.
That’s because Cohen and Sproles, who is a reserve running back and kick returner with the Philadelphia Eagles, are both 5-foot-6 in their stocking feet and had the uncanny ability to make the biggest plays on the field despite being small in stature.
Anyone watching the film on Cohen will immediately see the explosiveness, elusiveness and speed that made him a three-time MEAC Player of the Year and conference all-time leading rusher.
His national coming out party was two seasons ago in the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl, where he rushed for 295 yards and three touchdowns versus Alcorn State to help the Aggies win the Black College Football National Championship.
Cohen, dubbed “The Human Joystick,” had a senior season that went for 1,588 rushing yards and 18 TDs.
Cohen received an invitation to the NFL Combine where he ran a 4.42 in the 40-yard dash.
After a solid Pro Day, he, according to an NFL.com profile, was projected around the fifth-round or the sixth-round.
When Cohen was taken by the Chicago Bears last Saturday, there were mixed reactions to not only the pick, but to how he would fare in the NFL.
Pro Football Weekly publisher and respected NFL analyst Hub Arkush said, “Chicago will fall in love with this kid.”
Bears general manager Ryan Pace agreed the Sproles comparison was an appropriate one considering he was part of the New Orleans Saints front office when Sproles was there.
“I can see Cohen getting 10 to 12 touches a game as a returner, receiver and runner. With his open-field running skills, he can be a treat any time the ball is in his hands,” said Pace.
Others did not share the same optimism.
“There are NFL players in the MEAC and SWAC, but Cohen is also fighting a battle against size. He’s 5-foot-6 and 179 pounds. How he’s deployed will be interesting,” wrote longtime Chicago sports talk radio host Lawrence Holmes.
Wrote ESPN Chicago reporter Jeff Dickerson about the Bears draft selections, calling the picks risky:
“Later in the fourth round, Chicago drafted running back Tarik Cohen from FCS school North Carolina A&T. I’m going to lie down.”
Much of the skepticism surrounding Cohen stems from him being unfamiliar, small and playing in a conference that was rated the 11th best league out of 13 conferences … in the FCS.
And the excitement surrounding Cohen’s potential is built on the strength of his game tape and sharing attributes of other successful football players his size, most notably Sproles.
But can Cohen be just as good, if not better, than Sproles in Chicago?
It depends on how the Bears choose to use him and how he adjusts to playing in the NFL when he is no longer the the best athlete on the field.
In college, Cohen dominated MEAC opponents during his four-year career to the tune of 5,619 yards. But in six games against non-HBCU opponents, Cohen averaged 71.6 yards per game and scored just two touchdowns.
Compare that to Sproles, who finished his career at Kansas State with the sixth most all-purpose yards in NCAA history and was fifth in Heisman Trophy voting in 2003 competing mainly against Power Five opponents.
Following Sproles’ success in the NFL, which includes him being the only player in NFL history with 2,200 or more all-purpose yards in four different seasons and 61 career touchdowns, other running backs and kick returners with similar physical traits have been viewed as the next one of the 5-foot-7 and under club such as …
The 5-foot-6 inch Rogers rushed for more than 3,000 yards at Oregon State and was taken in the fifth-round of the 2011 NFL Draft. He has gone onto compile 2,929 total yards and score 12 total TDs in six pro seasons.
Holliday was an elite sprinter at LSU specializing in returning kicks. In the NFL, Holliday — all 5-foot-5, 169 pounds of him — is on his sixth NFL team since being drafted by Houston in 2010, but has 11 Denver Broncos return records.
Wolfe, who tallied 5,136 rushing yards in four years at Northern Illinois, was taken by the Bears in the third round of the NFL Draft in 2007. At 5-foot-7 and shifty, Wolfe was considered a solid change-of-pace back on a team one season removed from an appearance in the Super Bowl that featured Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson in the backfield. In four seasons in Chicago, Wolfe averaged just 3.7 yards per carry and scored just one career touchdown before finishing his football career in the CFL.
Jones-Drew played nine years in the NFL, was a three-time Pro Bowl selection, led the league in rushing in 2011 and rushed for 8,167 yards at 5-foot-7.
As you can see, the career paths of little men drafted since Sproles have either been great, lukewarm or forgettable.
It remains to be seen which category Cohen will fall into once his NFL journey begins.