Bears

Hub Arkush: Rebuilding rosters can lead to solid special teams, guys fighting for jobs

Chicago Bears running back Khalil Herbert returns a kickoff during the first half against the Minnesota Vikings, Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, in Minneapolis.

How important are special teams?

Ask the Green Bay Packers. In spite of being the NFC’s No. 1 seed, they famously lost, 13-10, in the divisional playoffs at home to the San Francisco 49ers because of multiple gaffes on special teams.

Special teams not only matter, they have been a fairly consistent strength of the Bears in recent years with the exception of Cody Parkey’s “double doink” during the 2018 wild-card round.

They’ve featured at least one First- or Second-Team All-Pro each of the past four seasons, with five nods altogether from Tarik Cohen, Cordarrelle Patterson and Jakeem Grant.

And Cairo Santos came within four field goals of the NFL’s all-time record of 44 straight without a miss last season.

However, the maestro of those units, Chris Tabor, was let go, and, of course, Patterson, Cohen and Grant are all gone now as well.

Head coach Matt Eberflus started strong by convincing Richard Hightower to leave the 49ers and return to Chicago, where he was an assistant special teams coach under John Fox in 2016.

Hightower knows the Bears legacy on special teams, invoking the name of arguably the greatest special teamer of all time.

“I think Devin Hester is one of the greatest returners of all time, and I get chills that I get to coach where a guy was so good,” Hightower said. “I have shown tape on Devin Hester here, and I’ve shown it at other places I’ve been as well because to me he’s the model, he’s the standard.”

Hightower should be set at placekicker with Santos back, but that can be a tricky position where guys have been known to be very streaky, both good and bad.

Sadly Santos’ run at the record came up just short when he was asked to try a 65-yard game-winner in Week 9 in Pittsburgh with 2 seconds to play, but his only bad miss all year was a 40-yard try the following week vs. the Ravens.

He is 57 fo 64 as a Bear, an 89.1% accuracy rate, which would rank fourth in NFL history for a career.

Beyond that there is some concern.

Veteran punter Patrick O’Donnell left via free agency after eight seasons, ironically signing with the Packers and the only two punters on the roster right now are Ryan Winslow and seventh-round draft choice Trenton Gill.

Winslow has had cups of coffee with five teams over the past three seasons but punted only 47 times in 10 games.

In the return game, third-round pick Velus Jones Jr. arrives with a label of special-teams demon and is a very promising kick returner, where he will compete with Khalil Herbert, but he only returned punts once in six college seasons, his last at Tennessee. Dazz Newsome and Nsimba Webster are other options there.

Hightower hopes that DeAndre Houston-Carson will be his coverage demon but says he welcomes all applicants.

“We use different type of guys,” Hightower said. “We try to show these guys that you can cut your teeth on special teams, and you can start there. You can make plays.

“And that’s what I enjoy the most is you get to help guys develop and accomplish their dreams, and they can help the team before they become starters.”

The coverage units should be solid this season with a rebuilding roster and a glut of interesting youngsters, including Dane Cruikshank, Thomas Graham Jr., Kindle Vildor, Duke Shelley, Elijah Hicks, Caleb Johnson, Jack Sanborn, C.J. Avery and others looking to earn jobs in the league.

Hub Arkush

Hub Arkush

Hub Arkush is the Senior Bears Analyst for Shaw Local News Network and ShawLocal.com.