Training Camp Player to Watch: Special Teams

| July 15th, 2021

Cordarrelle Patterson was the best kickoff return man in football during his tenure with the Chicago Bears, and ascended into the ranks of the best kickoff return men of all-time. Patterson was also the club’s most reliable gunner on punt coverage and showed remarkable versatility across special teams units the last two seasons. This is a difficult player to replace, but the Bears certainly did not have the financial resources to bring him back at what can only be described as a vanity position in this modern NFL.

We know who the kicker and punter will be in 2021. We know Tarik Cohen will be back on punt returns, especially with Damien Williams brought in to lighten his offensive load. It is impossible to analyze who’ll handle Patterson’s “defending” roles, as those spots are often the byproduct of roster decisions to come later in the summer. (Sherrick McManis is still a free agent and the Bears are still interested in bringing him back.)

So who should fans watch when it comes to the kickoff return spot?

Williams, Damiere Byrd and Marquise Goodwin each have extremely-limited kick return experience and none of them profile for the position athletically. (Speed is great but most speedsters fail due to lack of vision, elusiveness.) Anthony Miller can do the gig but Miller might not be on the roster come September. Dazz Newsome seemed a natural to give work there, but his lack of experience doing so in college, coupled with a broken collarbone, leave it unlikely special teams coach Chris Tabor will get much time to experiment with him this preseason.

That leaves Khalil Herbert. And the rookie, even in a crowded running backs room, has a direct path to making the 53-man roster as a serious contributor.

Three reasons I like Herbert for the role:

  • He’s an exclusively downhill runner and that’s what kickoff returns are: find the seam and get what you can. (His highlight package at Tech above shows what I’m talking about.) He’s also incredibly difficult to bring down on first contact. Often if a kick return man survives first contact, he’s got a chance to score.
  • Pace and the personnel folks will be eager to score more points in the later rounds and getting serious contributions from a sixth-round pick would do just that.
  • Production. Herbert returned 16 kicks last season at an average clip of 26.9 yards per return last season. Nobody else on the current roster had anywhere near that production returning kickoffs over the last calendar year.

With training camp just days away, this feels like it could be Herbert’s job to lose. And maybe it should be.

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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.


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.

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The (Rest of the) 2021 Chicago Bears Draft Class [VIDEOS]

| May 2nd, 2021

In the first round, the Bears selected Justin Fields. (More on this tomorrow.)

In the second, they selected Teven Jenkins, the most mocked player to the team over the last month.

We posted highlights of fifth round pick Larry Borom. Here are highlights from the rest.

Khalil Herbert, RB, Virginia Tech

Dazz Newsome, WR, UNC

Thomas Graham Jr., DB, Oregon

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