Even though we’re months away from opening up camp at Bourbonnais, the Chicago Bears have created their first training camp competition.
By virtue of the Bears’ offseason moves, the battle for kick return duties will be among the most competitive at Bears camp. John Fox’s special teams unit – coached by Jeff Rodgers – will be watched closely after the team conjured up competition with a series of signings and re-signings this offseason. The latest being recently-signed Benny Cunningham, a running back who projects to be used primarily as a return specialist.
The Bears ranked 31st in average starting field position (own 25.1) thanks in large part to a sub-par return game. Chicago gained the seventh most yards on kick returns, but much of that came because the team returned 42 kicks in 2016 – the third highest total in the league. And for as often as the Bears were returning kicks in 2016, they averaged only 21.4 yards per return and ranked 18th in the 32-team league.
Among the players providing the competition for Cunningham is incumbent Deonte Thompson, who returned a league-leading 35 kicks and finished second in return yards in 2016. HOWEVER, his disappointing 23-yard average per kick return ranked sixth of 10 qualifying return specialists.
The player who ranked third on the list of league leaders? Benny Cunningham, who averaged 27.2 yards per returned kick.
Thompson and Cunningham represent the favorites, but the Bears have some sleepers with experience on the roster. Free agent signees Markus Wheaton, Kendall Wright, and Quintin Demps all have experience as kick returners. Wheaton averaged 24.7 yards per return in 2014, a year in which he returned 20 kicks. Wright received his first taste as a returner in 2016, though his cup of coffee in that role yielded just three returns for 32 yards. Demps is the most experienced of the group with 110 returned kicks in stints with the Texans, Eagles, Chiefs, and Giants. He owns a career average of 26.6 yards per return, but has only 14 returns since the start of 2014. Which is a real shame because Demps’ 2013 was pretty solid, averaging 30.1 yards per return on 33 attempts.
Of course, the Bears still could add more names to the mix via the draft. However, it won’t likely be in the form of a dedicated specialist. The Bears would be wise to find a two-way player – for example, a cornerback who can contribute as an every down and as a returner. Adoree’ Jackson of USC could be that kind of player, and could be available in the second round of the draft. He would be a player who fits two needs, but only takes up one roster spot.
Are you interested yet?