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How Will Bears Handle Massive Special Teams Turnover in 2021?

| May 21st, 2021

A whole lot of attention has been paid to Chicago’s offense and defense this offseason, but there hasn’t been much focus on the unit that will see the largest turnover from 2020: special teams.

Bears special teams were quietly very good last year; they ranked 8th in total DVOA according to Football Outsiders, and were among the 10 best NFL teams in field goals, kickoff coverage, kickoff returns, and punt returns.

This was not a usual result for Chicago, as 2020 was the first year they were ranked in the top 10 for ST DVOA since 2012. To put that in perspective, in 2012 Lovie Smith was still the head coach, Dave Toub the ST coordinator, Devin Hester the return man, Robbie Gould the kicker, and Patrick Mannelly the long snapper. Those were the days.

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General Changeover

So how did Chicago celebrate their 2020 special teams success? By changing over much of the unit. The specialists – K Cairo Santos, P Pat O’Donnell, and LS Patrick Scales – all return, but many of their core ST players will not. Just look at the table below, which shows all 12 Bears who played at least 30% of the ST snaps last year.

The players highlighted in red are no longer with the Bears, and make up nearly half the list (5 of 12). Two more core special teamers – RB Ryan Nall and OLB James Vaughters – saw additions made to their position this offseason that leave them with an uphill climb to make the roster again. If those two are not able to stick, then 7 of the 12 players on this list will be gone. That leaves a whole lot of special teams snaps that will need to be filled.

The good news is that the Bears have emphasized bringing in players with ST experience this offseason. The table below shows new Bears who were core ST performers at their last stop. An * indicates the ST experience was in college.



You can see fairly logical replacements for the players who are leaving from above.

  • Sherrick McManis leaves at CB, but is replaced by Artie Burns and/or Jordan Lucas.
  • Cordarrelle Patterson (and potentially Ryan Nall) leave at RB, but is/are replaced by Damien Williams (and potentially Khalil Herbert).
  • Barkevious Mingo (and potentially James Vaughters) leave at OLB, but is/are replaced by Jeremiah Attaochu (and potentially Charles Snowden, a highly regarded UDFA the Bears signed). I extrapolated Attaochu’s snaps to a 16-game season because he’s only averaged 11 games/year, making it difficult to just look at raw stats.
  • The Bears don’t have a TE who’s a logical candidate to replace Demetrius Harris’ ST snaps, but they did sign Christian Jones to be their new 3rd ILB, and he brings a great amount of ST experience with him.
  • OLB Trevis Gipson was on the roster last year, but he was only active for seven games. If you extrapolate those seven games to a full 16-game season, he would have been a core special teamer, so it’s reasonable to assume he will fill that role this year.

Three other quick notes:

  • I searched for any ST information on 6th round draft picks Thomas Graham (CB) and Dazz Newsome (WR), but couldn’t find anything about them playing ST in college besides Newsome being a punt returner (more on that below).
  • Two other returning players could be poised to step into bigger ST roles this year: cornerbacks Kindle Vildor and Duke Shelley. The duo played 100 and 90 ST snaps in 2020, respectively, and coaches could look to increase that as they grow into the NFL.
  • The Bears don’t have a single WR who is expected to be heavily involved on ST, which feels really weird. None of their returning guys played much last year, and none of the new players they brought in (namely Damiere Byrd and Marquise Goodwin) have played much in the past.

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Kick Returns

Beyond general special teams units, the Bears also lost kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson this offseason. In his 2 seasons in Chicago, Patterson averaged 29.2 yards/return (1st in the NFL), and he was named a 1st team All-Pro kick returner both years. As you can see from the table below, the Bears don’t have a clear-cut option to replace him. Once again an * indicates stats are from college.


 

A few thoughts:

  • Damiere Byrd is the only player on the roster to beat the NFL average in the NFL, but a sample size of 14 kick returns scattered across four seasons is hardly overwhelming.
  • Tarik Cohen might be a guy many fans think would naturally take this role, but he was bad at it early in his career.
  • Plenty of players have college experience, and I would wager 6th round pick Khalil Herbert is likely the front runner here, but again he has a small sample size of only 16 returns in college. His 26.9 yards/return average was 14th best in college football last year (minimum 10 returns), but that jumps to 5th if you only look at players from Power 5 conferences.
  • If you’ve never heard of Rodney Adams, he is a WR who is unlikely to make Chicago’s roster. He does have significant kick return experience from college, but he’s been out of college since 2016 without ever returning a kickoff in the NFL. He’s only been active for one game (in 2017), but never saw the field.

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Punt Returns

Finally, a quick word about punt returns. Tarik Cohen is the incumbent here, but I’m not sure if Chicago will want to keep him returning punts after he got hurt doing it in 2020, which forced him to miss most of the season. They might decide he’s too valuable on offense to risk on special teams, but that would be a blow to the Bears. From 2017-19, Cohen ranked in the top 10 in yards/return each year, and he was a 1st team All-Pro punt returner in 2018.

Still, if Chicago decides to pull Cohen off of punt returns, they do actually have a very intriguing option on the roster. 6th round pick Dazz Newsome was an electric punt returner at North Carolina, where he averaged 11.1 yards/return on 48 punt returns from 2018 to 2020. In 2020, he finished 10th in the NCAA in yards/return (minimum 10 returns), but 3rd if you only look at Power 5 schools, who face a higher level of competition. He was even better in 2018, when he led all Power 5 returners (and was second overall) in return average.

The Bears may not have any proven options at kick returner, but they have two really good choices to return punts, and I’m curious to see which direction they go. Dazz Newsome would almost certainly be a downgrade from Cohen, but maybe not a significant one, and the Bears may decide that saving Cohen from the injury risk is worth it.

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