Bears

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for special teams

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for special teams

With training camp starting in less than two weeks, CSN Chicago’s Chris Boden and JJ Stankevitz are looking at three burning questions for each of the Bears position units heading into Bourbonnais. Today’s group: special teams.

1. Connor Barth, Year 2 (right?)

Robbie Gould had a bad finish to 2015, a poor preseason last summer and was shown the door in favor of Barth. When he got off to a shaky start, he heard it from Bears fans, but wound up recovering fairly nicely. Despite that, however, his 78.3 percent field goal accuracy (18-for-23) fell shy of his career 84 percent mark. If Barth has the same kind of preseason that Gould did a year ago, you’d have to think the personnel department will be keeping a close eye on the waiver wire. Right now, the competition is 28-year-old rookie Andy Phillips from Utah, who grew up playing soccer and was an Olympic downhill skiing hopeful (never having played high school football). Phillips connected on more than 80 percent of his field goal attempts with the Utes.

“I think every job is a competition,” said special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers in May. “You get to this level, and you’re looking at positions where there’s only one of them. All those guys understand that, not only from them competing with guys on this field in our camp, they’re competing with 31 other teams, and the guys on those depth charts.”

2. Kids in the (Return) Game

The Bears' leading punt returner last season was the now-departed, injury-plagued Eddie Royal and his 19 returns (one touchdown) came in just nine games. They could give cornerbacks Bryce Callahan and Cre’Von LeBlanc chances, but they’ll also give fourth round rookies Eddie Jackson and Tarik Cohen looks. Both will make this team and camp will sort out how much they’ll be relied upon on at safety and running back, respectively. Jackson had big-time success in that role at Alabama, but is coming off a broken leg. Cohen was mostly kept off returns his senior season at North Carolina A & T so he wouldn’t get worn down as the starting running back. One he did take, however, wound up with him scoring only to be called back by penalty.

Kickoff returns would seem to be pointing towards free agent signee Bennie Cunningham, whose 27.2-yard average with the Rams was third in the NFL and virtually matched his career average. He has the fourth-most kickoff return yardage since making the league as an undrafted free agent in 2013. Incumbent Deonte Thompson led the league with 35 returns a year ago and finished sixth in average at 23.0. But depending how healthy the wide receiving corps is through training camp, Thompson may be facing a numbers game at the position. Joshua Bellamy is a virtual lock to make the roster because of his Teams prowess. If Cam Meredith, Kevin White, Markus Wheaton, Victor Cruz and Kendall Wright all earn spots as well, where would that leave Thompson?

“He’s a good athlete, he’s had good averages and production in this league,” Rodgers said of Cunningham. “He’s a thicker body (5’10, 217), incredibly smart, a hard worker. There’s a lot to like about what he does. Contact balance is another thing he does well. He’s a compact player and he’s strong, so generally speaking, arm tackles aren’t something that’s gonna bring him down.”

3. Roster balance, with effective puzzle pieces.

After the oft-criticized Joe DeCamillis exited along with the Marc Trestman/Phil Emery Era, the Bears’ overall special teams rankings (as computed by the Dallas Morning News) rose from 26th in 2014 to 12th in 2015 under Rodgers. But last season, it slipped back to 27th. Their punt coverage sunk from 14th to last in the league and their kickoff return average plummted from third in the NFL two years ago to 18th last season. Their only improvement in the four units was in kickoff coverage. Finding effective parts during roster cutdown time is a balance that’s difficult to find for a team with such regular roster turnover. 

Dave Toub has been missed. But with a squad that’s been injury-plagued the past two seasons and will have an offense learning on the fly with a new quarterback, this phase must stay away from critical mistakes. That’s especially crucial  in the first month, when the defense will be tested by four high-powered offense in a 19-day span.

Bears-Lions prediction: Will special teams continue John Fox's NFC North woes?

Bears-Lions prediction: Will special teams continue John Fox's NFC North woes?

Only three of John Fox’s 12 wins as Bears coach have been against NFC North opponents, while 12 of his 29 losses have come against divisional opponents. 

That’s a recipe for back-to-back-to-back last place finishes in the NFC North. And if the Bears can’t beat an Aaron Rodgers-less Green Bay Packers team, why could it beat a Detroit Lions team that has a healthy franchise quarterback?

The positive end of that answer is the Bears do have wins over two playoff teams (Pittsburgh and Carolina) while six of their four losses have been by eight points or fewer. Sunday’s game will probably be close, again (if it’s not, and the Bears are on the losing end of it, it would raise some significant concerns about the state of Fox within the locker room). 

So if the game is decided by one possession or less, this could be the difference: Detroit has one of the best special teams units in the NFL, ranking second in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, while the Bears are 28th by the same measure. 

Getting Sherrick McManis back this week should help solidify Jeff Rodgers’ special teams units, but Jamal Agnew has two punt return scores and is averaging 18.3 yards per return. 

“Tough guy — he’ll return inside and outside,” Rodgers said. “He’s got multiple longer returns against people this year. it’s not just, ‘I had a long return in Week 2 or Week 1,’ and kinda held onto that. he’s been productive in a lot of games. certainly a guy that we’ve gotta do a good job against.”

If the Bears don’t do a good job bottling up Agnew, though, he could be the reason why the game flips to Detroit — or, at least, why the Lions keep the Bears at arm’s length. 

Prediction: Lions 24, Bears 16

SportsTalk Live Podcast: How hot is John Fox's seat?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: How hot is John Fox's seat?

Seth Gruen (Bleacher Report/”Big Ten Unfiltered” podcast), Chris Emma (670TheScore.com) and Matt Zahn (CBS 2) join Kap on the panel. If the Bears lose badly to the Lions, should Sunday be John Fox’s last game? 

Plus Bulls Insider Vincent Goodwill joins the panel to talk Bulls as well as the Niko/Portis cold war.

Listen to the full SportsTalk Live Podcast right here: