Throughout the Lovie Smith era, the Chicago Bears special teams units were consistently amongst the best in the NFL. Former Bears (and current Kansas City Chiefs) special teams coach Dave Toub is one of the most well-regarded coaches in the league. Under Toub the Bears had five special teams players selected to the Pro Bowl: Devin Hester, Robbie Gould, Johnny Knox, Brendon Ayanbadejo and Corey Graham.
Smith and Toub are gone, as well as four of the five former Pro Bowlers (only Gould remains), and under head coach Marc Trestman the Bears special teams took a major step back. Toub was replaced by former Dallas Cowboys special teams coach Joe DeCamillis, who suffered through a rough first season with the Bears.
The Bears ranked in the bottom third of the league last season and must improve in the third phase of the game. The defense will definitely be better, the offense is a budding powerhouse; the special teams must come to play and hold up their end of the bargain week in and week out.
Gould, one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history, will continue to pull his weight, so increased productivity needs to come from the kickoff and punt coverage and kickoff and punt return teams.
Hester is gone, but the Bears have enough options for returners that it really shouldn’t be an issue. Veteran Eric Weems has hundreds of returns in his career, but has been rather unspectacular while returning with the Bears. Running back Michael Ford is another option, as well as recent acquisitions Michael Spurlock, Armanti Edwards, and Josh Morgan. Replacing a legend like Hester is never easy, but the Bears certainly have some capable options on the roster, I’d expect Weems to start the season as the #1 guy.
The most worrisome issues are on kickoff and punt teams. Former Bear, now Pittsburgh Steeler, Adam Podlesh seemingly lost all of his talent last year. His hang time, accuracy and power were all laughably bad. The Bears have two young punters coming to training camp in rookie Pat O’Donnell and second year player Tress Way. GM Phil Emery used a draft pick on O’Donnell which all but guarantees him a roster spot, but Way did tryout midseason for the Bears last year while Podlesh was struggling. O’Donnell has the power that the Bears lacked last year, and will definitely be an upgrade at punter.
Of course, the second part of quality punt and kick coverage is tackling. The Bears will be improved in this aspect as well. Veterans Craig Steltz, Sherrick McManus and Weems will lead the charge, but I expect big things from rookie Kyle Fuller and second year linebacker Khaseem Greene.
The Bears special teams should return to the top half of the league this upcoming season with the roster moves made this offseason. The quality mix of veterans and young athletes looks promising. If Gould can remain one of the top scorers in the NFL, they can take a major step towards regaining their impressive ranking and keeping pace with the offense and defense en rout to a playoff berth.