Throughout the summer we will be running a 12-part series grading each Chicago Bears position group on a standard A-F scale, including pluses and minuses based on a bell curve comparing all 32 NFL teams.
The Bears face a rebuilding job of sorts this season with their special teams. They are locked in in the kicking game with veterans at placekicker, punter and long snapper, but they also must replace their two best coverage men and quite possibly the best kickoff returner in the NFL ever.
In recent seasons the Bears have been the best kick-return team in the league thanks to Cordarrelle Patterson, who has now departed for Atlanta, and when Tarik Cohen is healthy, the punt return game has been excellent as well.
Patterson has also been an All-Pro and Pro Bowl gunner on coverage teams, and special teams captain and second best cover man Sherrick McManis remains unsigned.
How the team replaces those two will go a long way toward dictating its special teams success this season.
Cairo Santos is a seven-year veteran and an above average NFL placekicker with a career 83.13 field-goal percentage, which ranks him 31st in NFL History. In his two seasons as a Bear he has converted 31-of-34 attempts in 2019 for a 91.2% success rate, and he was 30 of 32 (93.8%) last season. He is currently working on a streak of 27 consecutive field goals, which broke Robbie Gould’s all-time Bears record of 26. The NFL record is 44 by Adam Vinatieri.
Placekickers are notoriously volatile and mercurial, but Santos was the best in the league the second half of last season. Grade: B.
Patrick O’Donnell is also a seven-year veteran and was drafted by the Bears in the sixth round of the 2014 draft. He is also coming off his best season in the league. Over his career he has averaged 45.0 yards on 502 punts and had just four blocked.
O’Donnell has improved markedly over the last three seasons in large part because of his dramatic improvement as a directional punter that led to 28 punts downed inside the 20 last season versus just five touchbacks and allowing only 25 of his 64 punts to be returned. Grade: B-.
Patrick Scales is a six-year veteran that has started 69 straight games for the Bears over the last five seasons after beginning his career with Baltimore in 2014.
He is dependable and consistent but rarely makes his presence felt in coverage. Grade: B-.
With the departure of Patterson it is unclear who will get first crack at the kick return job this season. Darnell Mooney, Anthony Miller, Damien Williams, Marquise Goodwin and Damiere Byrd all have kick return experience, but none have ever been a team’s primary kickoff returner. Williams may be the closest with 21 returns for the Dolphins in 2015, but he averaged just 21.8 yards per return. Grade: Incomplete.
Will the Bears risk Cohen returning punts after tearing his ACL last season? It seems almost certain since he has been to two Pro Bowls for his work, bringing back punts and it does represent one of his greatest values to the team. The way NFL players recover from torn ACL’s these days it is likely he will be close to 100% by midseason. Grade B+/A-.
Replacing Patterson and McManis will be difficult but not impossible, and it could dictate the bottom of the depth chart at wide receiver, running back, linebacker, cornerback and safety with lots of players in the mix.
Jordan Lucas, Deon Bush, Marqui Christian, Ryan Nall, Artavis Pierce, DeAndre Houston-Carson, Josh Woods and Javon Wims are all prime candidates to replace the Bears two gunners from last year if they can make the team. Grade: Incomplete.
Chris Tabor has been one of the better special teams coordinators in the league since overseeing the Browns teams from 2011-2017 and arriving with Matt Nagy in 2018.
There is every reason to believe he’ll overcome the loss of Patterson and McManis in coverage, but replacing Patterson on kickoff returns could prove quite difficult.
Until we know who gets the job, it’s difficult to grade this group overall. Let’s assume the Bears are able to find the league average at kickoff returner. Overall grade: B-