By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) For years, the Bears won games in spite of their offense and relied upon their defense and special teams to generate points. Last year was a complete reversal, as both of the defense and special teams took uncharacteristic steps in the wrong direction.
Three pieces that made the Bears’ special teams, well, special have left the organization over the past two seasons. First to go was coordinator Dave Toub. Most recently, long snapper Patrick Mannelly retired and return specialist Devin Hester left for Atlanta.
The Bears also let punter Adam Podlesh go this past offseason. Podlesh earned his release, ranking dead last in the league in gross punting average and 29th in net punting average.
Add it all up, and kicker Robbie Gould is the lone holdover from the core specialists. The Bears will start the season with a new long snapper, punter, holder, kick returner and punt returner, which makes the preseason games vitally important for special teams evaluations.
The effect of Toub’s departure was quantified. Rick Gosselin of The Dallas Morning News has devised a special teams ranking system in which he assigns points based on where a team ranks in 22 different special teams categories, then does aggregate totals. Under Toub, the Bears ranked in the top 10 for seven consecutive seasons, twice ranking No. 1 overall. Last year, they dropped to 23rd.
Toub’s new team, the Kansas City Chiefs, went from 23rd in 2012 to third in Toub’s first season. Coincidentally or not, the team Bears special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis left (the Cowboys) jumped from 17th in 2012 to fourth in 2013.
Injuries certainly played a part in the Bears special teams’ decline last year. In particular, injuries and linebacker and cornerback — positions that are typically heavily relied upon for coverage and punt return units — forced inexperienced players on the field.
Over the next three weeks, the Bears will cut 47 players. The final roster spots will be won by players who contribute on multiple special teams units. Consequently, the special teams phase of the preseason will be highly competitive and there are several storylines to follow.
Competitors: Brandon Hartson, Chad Rempel
Neither Hartson nor Rempel has ever snapped in the NFL. Hartson was in training camp last year for the Bears after Mannelly cracked a rib, so he has some history with the team. Rempel is a 10-year veteran of the CFL and was coach Marc Trestman’s long snapper in 2009.
Bears fans have been spoiled by the consistency of Mannelly and take for granted the initial mechanic of a field goal or punt. During camp, the long snapping has been inconsistent — particularly with Rempel — so this competition should be closely monitored throughout the preseason, as it certainly will be by DeCamillis.
“We’ve got to work through the process and find out who our guy is going to be, hopefully he’s on this team right now,” DeCamillis said early in training camp. “He may not be, we’ll have to see.”
Competitors: Tress Way, Pat O’Donnell
Whether it’s O’Donnell or Way who wins the battle, this is yet another situation in which neither has played a snap in the NFL.
The Bears spent a sixth-round draft pick on O’Donnell, which was met with raised eyebrows. Make no mistake about it, O’Donnell has a huge leg and quickly became a camp sensation. During the first padded practice of camp, O’Donnell boomed a punt and the crowd quickly burst into chants of “mega-punt” every time he lined up.
O’Donnell also had some shanks mixed in, was slow to get the ball off and needs to lower his drop to minimize the impact the swirling winds at Soldier Field will have on the ball.
The Bears need to focus on winning the field position battle within games. With an offense as potent as the Bears have, on drives that stall, having the ability to pin an opponent and flip field position will be critical. Having a strong leg is a plus, but punters must also show an ability to execute directional punts as well as pooch punts for hang time for the coverage unit to field and pin an opponent.
The winner of this battle will also likely be the holder for Gould, who is closing in on becoming the most accurate kicker in NFL history. With Gould being so reliable at his portion of the process, there’s no margin for error with the snap or hold, as it could cost the team points.
Competitors: Eric Weems, Michael Ford, Chris Williams, Michael Spurlock, Armanti Edwards
Whoever earns the return duties — it could be two different players — on the Bears will be filling some big shoes. Hester leaves the Bears as the NFL’s all-time leader in return touchdowns (19) and is fifth in punt return average (12.1).
Three of the competitors — Weems, Spurlock and Edwards — have NFL experience. Ford returned a kickoff 100 yards last preseason, and WIlliams earned the CFL’s Outstanding Special Teams Player award in 2012. So, there’s plenty of legitimate talent among this group.
The evaluation points for the returners will be ball security, reading the setup of his blockers and getting upfield as quickly as possible. Players who attempt to try and beat a team laterally — as Hester frequently did over his last few seasons — is a poor plan. The vertical lanes that coverage teams take are designed to limit cutback lanes.
In 2013, the Bears average starting field position was the 28-yard line, ranking them 13th in the league. Surely, they’ll aim to finish higher this season to give the offense the shortest field possible.
Follow Dan on Twitter: @djdurkin