A focus of the weeks of training camp and preseason will be the Bears’ search for someone to replace Devin Hester to handle their returns. Less high-profile but no less important is what the Bears will be doing to stop other teams’ returners.
Amid the defensive carnage of the 2013 Bears defense was a bright spot: kick coverage. A task this training camp is finding a way to repeat and build on it.
Bears special teams were a modest 23rd in the rankings of Dallas Morning News writer Rick Gosselin, dragged down by a woeful year of punting by Adam Podlesh. But they stood No. 1 in kickoff return average, one of only two teams to hold opponents to less than 20 yards per return, and No. 6 in punt return average.
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Repeating is less than a given. Tackles leader Blake Costanzo (17) returned to the San Francisco 49ers last month on a one-year deal. For now Sherrick McManis (15) is back, as is Craig Steltz (14). But Eric Weems (13) is very much in the mix for the job of returner but is 29, and Anthony Walters (10) is with Arizona.
Coverage units are works in progress, which they are most years. The Bears signed Jordan Senn, a former special teams captain with Carolina and could use rookie defensive backs Kyle Fuller and Brock Vereen with their speed on coverage, and the Bears haven’t ruled out using defensive starters on coverage.
Jon Bostic started last year as a backup linebacker, has time on special teams and could serve there again, particularly if he platoons at middle linebacker with D.J. Williams. Shea McClellin in his slimmer form has been getting looks on coverage units through the offseason.
“[McClellin] didn’t play a lot of special teams here in the last few years because of his role as a defensive lineman, so it’s something new for him, but he’s really adjusted well,” said special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis. “His drill work has gotten better every week and I think he’s on the right track. I don’t know how many plays he’s going to play, that will all shake out when we get to training camp and see who’s the starters and who the backups are, but he’s on the right track.”
Also on a right track has been rookie free agent linebacker Christian Jones, undrafted because of a diluted sample in a Combine drug test but with 4.7 speed in the 40-yard dash and 240 pounds. And being undrafted has already lit a fire for someone who believes he is superior to some of those who were.
“It’s a lot of motivation,” Jones said. “It’s the competitive side. You see guys getting drafted above you; everybody thinks they’re better than somebody. But that’s how it is.
“But it’s going to help fuel me and I believe that things happen for a reason. I really feel like I belong here and I’m just making the best out of this opportunity.”