For the first time since 2006 the Chicago Bears will find themselves without the services of the greatest kick returner in NFL history. Devin Hester and the Bears parted ways amicably this off-season when Hester’s contract expired. This was not the only loss the Bears’ special teams experienced during the off-season. Long time long snapper Patrick Mannelly is also contemplating retirement after 16 stellar NFL seasons. The team is also expected to start a rookie punter, 6th round draft pick Pat O’Donnell. All of these factors combine to put the Bears’ special teams units in unfamiliar territory.
In his eight seasons with the Bears, Hester had accumulated 13 punt return TD’s, one missed field goal attempt returned for a TD, and five kickoffs returned for scores, including the opening kick to Superbowl XLI. What doesn’t appear on the stat sheets though is his ability to change the game even when the ball isn’t in his hands. Opposing kickers routinely kicked the ball out-of-bounds to avoid Hester, which normally resulted in good field position for the Bears. Now heading into 2014 the Bears still need to find a reliable returner to fill the massive void left behind by Hester’s departure.
The Bears drafted O’Donnell in the 6th round of the NFL Draft earlier this month to replace Adam Podlesh, whom the Bears had released at the end of the 2013 season. O’Donnell quickly impressed the Bears’ staff at the team’s rookie mini camp and is expected to start for the Bears this season. This will mark only the third different starting punter for the team since 2001.
With a rookie punter the best thing to have is a reliable long snapper to give him a good snap every time. Unfortunately for O’Donnell, Mannelly, one of the best to ever spin the ball for the Bears, is considering retirement after having hip surgery earlier this year. If Mannelly does indeed hang up his cleats, the Bears will need to find another long snapper to create chemistry between O’Donnell and place kicker Robbie Gould.
Gould is the bright spot for the special teams unit. After signing a lucrative contract extension this winter, Gould will look to be among the top kickers in the game once again this year. Of course this will also depend on O’Donnell, who will take over as the team’s holder on field goals this season.
The Bears will need all of these new pieces to come together quickly this season if they have any hopes of making the playoffs this year.