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.

Mitch Trubisky jersey sales trending in right direction

Mitch Trubisky jersey sales trending in right direction

Positive press about the Chicago Bears' offseason is having a strong impact on the jersey sales for the team's highest-profile player, Mitch Trubisky.

According to Dick's Sporting Goods, Trubisky's No. 10 is the fifth-most popular jersey among offensive players over the last 30 days. He's No. 6 among all players, regardless of position.

The Bears' offseason has been full of superlatives since their aggressive approach to free agency. The signings of Allen Robinson, Trey Burton and Taylor Gabriel put the spotlight on Trubisky and the potentially surging passing game. The second-round selection of Anthony Miller and word of Kevin White's offseason emergence has turned positive momentum into higher-than-anticipated expectations for Trubisky this season.

For Chicago to have any chance at meeting those expectations, Trubisky, who's entering his first full season as a starter with a new head coach and offensive system, has to thrive. Fans must be confident that he will, considering the investment they're making in his jersey.

Trubisky ended his rookie season with four wins in 12 starts, throwing for 2,193 yards with seven touchdowns and seven interceptions. He completed 59.4 percent of his passes. He should have a much more productive season in 2018 with his new arsenal of skill players and an innovative coaching staff, led by coach Matt Nagy and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich.

These four Bears will be featured on 'Meet the Rookies' series

These four Bears will be featured on 'Meet the Rookies' series

The Chicago Bears will kick off the fourth season of "Meet the Rookies" on June 25, a series that profiles four of the team's 2018 draft picks for a behind-the-scenes look at their journey to the NFL.

The four-episode series will air on ChicagoBears.com at 7:00 p.m from June 25 - 28 and will feature one rookie per night. 

Monday's episode will cover the Bears' first-round pick, Roquan Smith. Selected with the eighth-overall pick, Smith is expected to become an instant-impact player on defense. He's expected to make an impact off the field, too, as a high-character leader. Smith's linebacker-mate Joel Iyiegbuniwe is the focus of Tuesday's episode, with Anthony Miller (Wednesday) and James Daniels (Thursday) rounding out Season 4.

For a deeper dive into what's in store in "Meet the Rookies," check out this description.