The Chicago Bears’ special teams unit has been underwhelming since Dave Toub left town, so it only makes sense for the organization to tab two Toub understudies in an attempt to bring this group back up to speed.
Chris Tabor returns to Chicago after a seven-year run running the Cleveland Browns’ special teams. Tabor previously served as a special teams assistant with the Bears from 2008-10. Assisting Tabor will be Brock Olivo, who was the Denver Broncos’ special teams coach in 2017. Like Tabor, Olivo spent time as an special teams assistant under Toub while in Kansas City.
New coaches aren’t the only changes expected to happen on the special teams front. Let’s explore.
WHO’S UNDER CONTRACT?
Of the Bears’ main special teams contributors, return specialist Tarik Cohen being under contract stands out the most. There were some bumps in the road along the way, but Cohen showed improvement with each week and ended the year as one of the league’s most exciting returners. He will likely return in that role again in 2018.
Eddie Jackson was drafted by the Bears because of he showed great playmaking skills in college as a defensive back and as a punt returner. Cohen handled punt return duties last year, but Jackson has a history of it and worked out as a punt returner during training camp last summer.
EXITING FREE AGENTS
The Bears signed Cairo Santos after Connor Barth flubbed what would have been a game-tying field goal against the Detroit Lions. His time with the Bears was cut short due to an injury that sent him on season-ending injured reserve. Mike Nugent replaced Santos and made all four of his field goal attempts, including his only attempt from 50+ yards.
Punter Pat O’Donnell was a sixth-round pick by GM Phil Emery in the 2014 NFL Draft. He has been steady and reliable during his four-year stint in Chicago. He also has a career passer rating of 158.3, just in case you were also looking for someone who could fill in that back-up quarterback role.
If Sherrick McManis returns, he’ll replace Kyle Long as the oldest and longest-tenured Bears player. McManis has been a special teams stud in Chicago since 2012 and his career has already spanned three Bears coaches. Why not make it four?
Benny Cunningham was the Bears’ third-down/two-minute drill back, but also the other kick returner next to Cohen. Cunningham averaged a career-worst 21.0 yards per return last year after averaging 27.8 yards per return in his previous three seasons.
Long snapper Patrick Scales is an exclusive free agent, meaning he can only negotiate with the Bears. Scales missed the entire 2017 season with a knee injury. Andrew DePaola, who replaced Scales as the team’s long snapper, is an unrestricted free agent.
WHO COULD BE CUT BEFORE THE LEAGUE NEW YEAR BEGINS?
No one whose departure can clear significant cap space.
HOW CAN THE BEARS ADDRESS/UPGRADE THE POSITION?
Kickers and punters aren’t usually high priorities in the draft, but that’s where we’ll start for the sake of this exercise. Auburn’s Daniel Carlson made 82.3 percent of his field goal attempts his last two seasons, including eight 50-yarders. He is college football’s top kicking prospect.
Keep an eye on Aidan Schneider as a possible undrafted free agent who could be brought into camp to battle for a position. He played at Oregon, where Bears OC Mark Helfrich was once the head coach.
Punters don’t often shine in college football all-star games, but Alabama’s J.K. Scott stood out. He was a two-time first-team All-American (2014, 2017) and two-time first-team All-SEC (2014, 2016) punter while kicking for the Crimson Tide. Michael Dickson of Texas won the Ray Guy Award in 2017, which is given to the nation’s best punter. He averaged 47.4 yards per punt with a long of 76.
The Bears could bring back Santos and Nugent for a good-ole-fashioned kickers competition in training camp. They could also go outside the building and peruse the free agent market. Caleb Sturgis of the Philadelphia Eagles lost his job to Josh Elliott and will be looking for a new start. He made 84.8 percent of his kicks with the Eagles.
Graham Gano was 29 of 30 with the Panthers last season, but missed three extra-points and didn’t make a 50-yard attempt during the regular season. He’ll likely get a lengthy look from contenders wanting to shore up their kicking game.
Sebastian Janikowski is the biggest name on the market, but he didn’t play at all in 2017 and has made just 79.6 percent of his kicks since the start of the 2013 season. To put that in perspective, that’s a lower percentage than Connor Barth, Mike Nugent, and Cairo Santos in the same time span.
I’m curious if the Bears would be interested in Dustin Colquitt, a two-time Pro Bowl punter who has spent the last 13 years with the Chiefs. Kansas City’s cap situation could make him an odd-man out.