Camping out ’14: Special-teams experience suddenly absent

Camping out ’14: Special-teams experience suddenly absent
July 18, 2014, 10:30 am
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Bears Insider John ‘Moon’ Mullin’ is getting you ready for Bears Training Camp, with previews of each position leading up to the day the Bears report to Bourbonnais.

First, the punch line: The 2014 Bears project to go into the season with a long-snapper who has never delivered a football to an NFL kicker, a punter who has never hit an NFL kick and a returner who has never caught one.

Rarely in recent years have training camps held real drama where the primary individual positions were concerned. Robbie Gould has been a fixture since securing the job from an aging and faltering Doug Brien in early 2005. Devin Hester was the NFL’s standard for returners, with occasional detour on offense. Pat Mannelly was on his way to being one of the best long-snappers in NFL history. And Brad Maynard and Adam Podlesh were virtual locks for the punting chores.

Last season was the worst of Podlesh’s career, leading to his exit and the Bears using a sixth-round pick to draft Patrick O’Donnell. Podlesh posted his lowest averages in both gross (40.6 yards) and net (37.9) yardages, capping off a slide that saw him lose at least a yard a year off of both for the second straight year. A low point came with the first blocked punt of his career, at Green Bay, and the Bears signaled their concerns with bringing in punters for in-season auditions.

Hester played out his contract and was not re-signed, although the Bears project to see him as a member of the Atlanta Falcons. Mannelly, who missed two games with a calf injury, opted for retirement at age 39 rather than attempt a comeback after offseason hip surgery.

The Bears finished a disappointing and uncharacteristic 23rd in the special-teams ranking system developed by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News. Gould, Hester and Mannelly set franchise marks and the Bears were strong in defending kickoff returns (No. 1) and returning punts (No. 2). But the season left the Bears at a crucial turning point at multiple positions on one of the NFL’s best units.

Offseason adjustments

Drafting O’Donnell and bringing in Way does not assure that the Bears will have an NFL-grade punter, although O’Donnell’s leg strength was eye-popping during offseason sessions.

The Bears signed receiver/returner Chris Williams from the CFL just prior to the final game, an indication of the impending change away from Hester, who took a three-year deal from Atlanta averaging $3 million per. The organization also kept Eric Weems through the offseason in what will be competition for the receiver/returner job on game days.

Michael Spurlock was signed as another receiver/returner and has NFL experience. But the Bears are his 10th team (Detroit and Tampa Bay twice, plus the Florida Tuskers) and he is in a difficult battle at age 31. The Bears signed former Giant Domenik Hixon but lost him to a possible career-ending torn ACL in minicamp.

[MORE: Bears rank 12th in Pro Football Talk's power rankings]

Long-snappers Brandon Hartson and Chad Rempel, the latter a rookie from Saskatchewan, the former with a some camp time with the Bears last year when Mannelly suffered a rib injury, have been through the offseason with the team. But neither has any NFL experience in what is a crucial pressure position that goes unnoticed until there is a mistake.

“The two guys that have been working here have done a great job in the offseason,” said special-teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis. “We still have to see how it's all going to work out and how it's going to pan out.”

Coverage units are by definition annual works in progress, if only because they are largely staffed by non-starters. Leading-tackler Blake Costanzo (17 tackles) is gone, but at this point of the offseason, Sherrick McManis (15) and Craig Steltz (14) are in camp. Additions like safeties M.D. Jennings and Danny McCray and linebacker Christian Jones will be looked to for upgrades in a unit that slipped up at times in ’13.

Training camp will answer...

whether inexperience will lead to problems. Rempel and Williams have solid CFL pedigrees but O’Donnell is a rookie and his competition, Tress Way, is similarly without game experience, and Way couldn’t beat out Podlesh last preseason, averaging 38.2 yards gross on six punts. Williams and the two long snappers have never been on an NFL field for a real game.

who returns kicks and punts. Weems has veteran experience and is a strong coverage presence but averaged just 11.4 yards on five punt returns last season and has been only an occasional part of return games in Atlanta and Chicago.

Williams has sudden speed and impressed Marc Trestman when the two were in the CFL. Field position is an overlooked result of strong special teams and the Bears can set up their offense nicely with a top return game.

“When you’re an offensive coordinator is it easier to call plays from the 10-yard line or is it easier to call them from the 40?” DeCamllis said. “I mean, it’s instant field position and overall it’s going to help you be a better ball club if you have a guy back there.”

whether the Bears have an NFL punter. O’Donnell and Way are unproven and offseason practices failed to provide a dominant clear winner.

“I think it’s going to be a heck of a competition,” DeCamillis said. “I think when we drafted Pat, for whatever reason, Tress really picked his business up. He’s really punted well and it’s going to be a heck of a competition.”

More Bears Camping Out '14:

— July 14: Offensive line
— July 15: Running backs
— July 16: Quarterbacks
— July 17: Wide receivers
— July 18: Special teams
— July 21: Linebackers
— July 22: Defensive backs
— July 23: Defensive line