By Bryan Dietzler
If you have been a Chicago Bears fan for at least the last 12 seasons, you will recall that they once had some of the best special teams play in the history of the NFL. Now, with the days of Devin Hester and Dave Toub behind us, Chicago’s’ special teams have been back page material. But there has been a resurgence on special teams during the preseason. Who is involved and how can this resurgence carry into the regular season?
If you watched the Bears’ game against the Arizona Cardinals two weeks ago, you saw something that you got you particularly excited about the future. You witnessed a great kickoff return courtesy of Deonte Thompson. We have also seen flashes from Tarik Cohen and Eddie Jackson. Benny Cunningham, Ka’Deem Carey, and Joshua Bellamy. Even Cre’Von LeBlanc may be returning punts this year.
The Bears have recognized that they had to do something about their special teams. Some of what they did in the draft was geared towards the return game. Guys like Jackson and Cohen can be effective in returning kicks. The Bears had to have that in mind when they drafted them. They must have also had special teams play in mind when they brought in Cunningham.
With all this talent, ideally, who should the Bears put back to return kickoffs and punts?
The Bears have had Thompson and Bellamy returning punts and kickoffs, but they have not been close to being highly effective. They should be considered mediocre at best. However, with their ability to play wide receiver, the Bears have kept them on the roster. With Cameron Meredith out for the year, they just might stay on the roster. Yes, Thompson had that big return against the Cardinals, but he hasn’t done anything like that the entire time he has been with Chicago.
Does one big return justify keeping him?
It might be time for some new blood to take over and get the Bears’ return game back on track. The Bears need someone more talented than Thompson and Bellamy. Change is needed and it’s probably coming.
So who will end up returning punts and kickoffs for the Bears in 2017?
First of all, to play on special teams, you have to make the active roster. With Bellamy and Thompson’s status up in the air we will focus on the other possibilities on special teams. We will want to concentrate on Cohen, Jackson, Cunningham, Carey, and LeBlanc. Out those players Cohen and Jackson are locks to make the team and their status as draft picks is the biggest reason why. Also, they have the skills to be playmakers. Both can be electric on punt and kickoff returns and have proven that.
I would look for both of them to return kicks for the Bears in 2017.
In addition to Jackson and Cohen, Cunningham might make the team as a backup running back and he has proved that he can return kicks. He has the skill and ability to avoid tacklers and get into the open field to break a long one. Cunningham would do well on special teams.
Carey, who is going to miss some time with a wrist injury, might be someone the Bears consider bringing back to help on special teams. He is more of a north and south style runner who will run over opponents breaking tackles along the way. Carey may not be as elusive as the other guys but he can return the football effectively. Should the Bears bring him back after his injury, he could get a shot at returning kicks.
Finally, LeBlanc has proven that he is one of the best athletes on the team and should be included any conversation about special teams. He can be a huge asset in the return game and if the Bears feel he can be trusted, then they should give him the opportunity. LeBlanc could do well. He’s fast, elusive and could easily create something out of nothing.
With all of the talent, Chicago has, their special teams units are bound to shine in 2017. They have tried to get their return game going stronger and have it help make a difference. Expect a lot of positive changes on special teams which will result in a much more productive and stable unit.
Perhaps a return to what it was like in the “glory days” of Chicago’s special teams is coming and it will happen this season.
You should expect great things out of Chicago’s special teams in 2017.