If Tarik Cohen wasn't the brightest backfield gem mined on Day 3 of the 2017 NFL draft, then it was the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Jones.
Like Cohen, whom the Bears found from tiny North Carolina A&T after the initial wave of backs in a rich draft crop were taken, Jones hails from relatively under-the-radar UTEP and was taken by the Packers and then-GM Ted Thompson 63 picks after Cohen, Chicago's most dynamic offensive weapon.
Jones' path to production has been slightly more circuitous than Cohen's, partially because he was one of three backs drafted by the Packers last year but also because injuries and a suspension delayed his ascent. But in Year 2, both have emerged as scintillating playmakers and vital cogs in their respective offenses.
"A hell of a running back," Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said Wednesday of Jones. "This guy runs tough, physical, he cuts it back and has good vision and fights for every inch he can get on the field. I’ve really been impressed with him."
Fangio clearly respects Jones, but the Bears don't have as much firsthand familiarity with him as the Packers do with Cohen, who has tallied 29 combined touches as a runner, receiver and returner in his first three games against Green Bay.
By contrast, Jones missed the opener this season because of a substance-abuse violation, after he was the third back out of the chute in his first indoctrination to this NFL rivalry and was knocked out of the second 2017 meeting early with a knee injury.
But at least one member of the Bears has seen Jones extensively on the field. Roy Robertson-Harris was Jones' teammate at UTEP for three seasons and a fellow former All-Conference USA performer. He echoed Fangio's feelings regarding Green Bay's leading rusher, whose 5.6-yard average per carry is tied with the San Francisco 49ers' Matt Breida for the NFC lead and only two-tenths of a yard behind Denver Broncos rookie Phillip Lindsay for the best in football.
"They pulled his redshirt in the middle of camp because we just saw him always finishing his runs during practice," recalls Robertson-Harris. "He just goes hard, and we knew from the get-go he was going to be someone special. I'm not surprised by what he's done. He hasn't been anything different than we thought back then."
With a rushing touchdown in five consecutive games, Jones is flirting with Hall of Famer Paul Hornung's franchise record of eight, set way back in 1960. But after scoring on Atlanta (26th in run 'D'), Arizona and Miami (tied for 29th) during his streak, Jones will face a far stiffer test in the Bears, whose run 'D' ranks second overall and completely erased then-NFL rushing leader Todd Gurley on Sunday night.
The Bears have allowed a league-low three rushing touchdowns to backs, but two of them came only three weeks ago courtesy of LeGarrette Blount. Chicago also ceded a season-worst 125 yards to Saquon Barkley one week later, including two back-breaking, explosive carries — one shortly before halftime and one early in overtime.
The styles of Blount and Barkley couldn't contrast further, and rest assured, Jones falls into the rare Barkley/Gurley category of back that blends speed, strength and suddenness — on all three downs.
In fact, even with Jordan Howard coming off his best game of the season, it wouldn't be surprising if Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy set out to find a Cohen complement in the Jones mold in the offseason. Jones isn't a big back like Howard, but at 5-foot-9 and 208 pounds, he's better built to do the dirty work than Cohen and has more juice than Howard. Jones has seven explosive gains on 155 touches this season; Howard has four on 213, with half coming last week.
Of course, Jones hasn't been as reliable as Cohen or Howard, the pair having appeared in every game thus far in their NFL careers. Jones' promising rookie season was slowed by that knee injury, and his second campaign started late after the suspension. But he's in a terrific groove now, and one of the Bears' toughest tasks Sunday will be keeping him quiet.
"Hard worker, hard runner," Robertson-Harris said. "He doesn't worry about the other stuff, he doesn't worry about the background noise. He just goes."