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Punt-, kick-return duties up for grabs

Published: Monday, July 21, 2014 9:32 p.m. CDT
Caption
(AP file photo)
Bears wide receiver Chris Williams runs with a ball June 3 during a NFL football practice in Lake Forest.

This is the last in a series of Bears position breakdowns by the Chicago Football staff leading up to the start of training camp Friday in Bourbonnais. For more Bears and NFL coverage, visit ChicagoFootball.com.

Today: Special teams

Overview: While the radical transformation of their defense has received the most offseason attention from the fans and media, the Bears also enter 2014 with a vastly different look on Joe DeCamillis’ special teams units.

The one constant is placekicker Robbie Gould, coming off another strong season (89.7 field goal conversion rate, including 3 of 4 from 50-plus) that leaves him just 92 points shy of surpassing Kevin Butler as the franchise’s all-time scoring leader. Barring injury, he should reach the milestone in 2014 – Gould hasn’t had less than 96 points in a season since his rookie year in ’05.

Gone are long snapper Patrick Mannelly, who retired after appearing in 245 games over 16 seasons, the most by a Bear; Devin Hester, the greatest return specialist in NFL history; punter Adam Podlesh; Blake Costanzo and Zack Bowman, who led the Bears in special teams tackles in 2013 and 2012, respectively.

To help try to offset the losses, general manager Phil Emery signed a plethora of established veterans with impressive special teams résumés, including linebacker Jordan Senn, safeties M.D. Jennings and Danny McCray and wide receivers/returners Micheal Spurlock and Armanti Edwards. Emery spent a sixth-round draft pick on punter Pat O’Donnell, and fellow rookies, cornerback Kyle Fuller and safety Brock Vereen, likely will play on coverage teams.

Sherrick McManis, Craig Steltz, Eric Weems and Michael Ford are among the key special teams contributors returning from last season.

Position battles: No fewer than five players – Weems, Ford, Edwards, Spurlock and Chris Williams – have their eyes on the punt- and kick-return vacancies created by Hester’s departure. Weems, a former Pro Bowler and the most experienced with the Bears of the bunch, heads to camp with a slight edge in the competition, but each will have ample opportunity to gain the trust of DeCamillis and coach Marc Trestman.

O’Donnell technically enters a competition with Tress Way, but the Bears didn’t spend the 191st pick in the draft on O’Donnell without the belief that he would be their punter of the present and future. If everything goes according to plan – the offense picking up where it left off in 2013, firing on all cylinders – O’Donnell won’t be too busy as a rookie.

For the first time in almost two decades, Chicago will hold a long snapper competition, with Chad Rempel, a former CFL player and Olympic bobsledder, and first-year player Brandon Hartson vying to replace the rock, Mannelly. Rempel and O’Donnell seem to have a solid rapport after working out together leading up to the draft. Neither player can replace the veteran leadership provided by Mannelly, but the Bears hope one can offer similar dependability.

New blood also will make for heated competition on coverage units, where guys like McManis, Steltz, Kelvin Hayden and Isaiah Frey will have to scratch and claw to earn roles and retain roster spots. Rookies such as Jordan Lynch and Christian Jones will need to show well on special teams to make the team.

Contract situations (information from Spotrac): Gould received a four-year extension worth up to $15 million ($9 million guaranteed) in December. Weems agreed to a pay cut that will pay him the veteran minimum ($730,000), despite potentially playing a larger role. Similarly, holdovers Steltz and McManis, and new arrivals Spurlock and Edwards, are slated to earn the veteran minimum, if they secure roster spots.

Keep an eye on: Williams. The CFL single-season record holder for return touchdowns has already accomplished a first in his NFL football career: sticking with one team for the duration of the offseason. Williams’ speed is probably unrivaled on this roster, and the Saints were none too pleased to see the Bears poach him off their practice squad in December. Emery likes his receivers supersized, but the diminutive Williams (5-foot-8, 175 pounds) might not have to be a contributor in the passing game if he proves to be a momentum changer in the return game.

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