Bears running back Tarik Cohen

Brace Hemmelgarn/USA Today Sports

Bears' Special Teams Look To Rebound

The punting job will be an open competition in training camp.

Greg Gabriel
July 16, 2018 - 4:37 pm

Editor's note: This is the 10th in a 10-part series breaking down the Bears leading up to the start of training camp. Click here for other position previews.

(670 The Score) When Dave Toub was the special teams coordinator for the Bears under Lovie Smith, the unit was always among the best in the NFL. Since Toub after the 2012 season, the Bears have taken a significant step back in that regard.

One of first-year coach Matt Nagy's first hires was Chris Tabor as his special teams coordinator. He entered the NFL with the Bears as an assistant special teams coach under Toub in 2008. He worked in Chicago for three seasons before taking over as the Cleveland Browns' special teams coordinator, a position he held through 2017. Tabor has a similar philosophy as Toub, and the hope is that he will bring the Bears' special teams play back to its glory days.

The most crucial part to improve is the placekicking. Since Robbie Gould was cut just ahead of the 2016 regular season, the Bears' placekicking has struggled. Chicago has lost several games in large part because of its kicking woes. The Bears employed four kickers over the past two seasons. None came close to Gould's performance.

To alleviate the problem, the Bears signed former Dolphins kicker Cody Parkey to a four-year, $15-million deal in free agency. Parkey was 21-of-23 (91.3 percent) on field goals in 2017, and his career accuracy of 86.4 percent is considered strong.

While the Bears hope their placekicking problem has been solved, there will be a key competition in camp for the punting job. The incumbent is Pat O’Donnell, who was a sixth-round draft pick in 2014. O’Donnell has a big leg and averaged 47.0 yards per punt last season, buttoo often when a clutch punt has been needed, O’Donnell has come up short. O’Donnell not only has to become more consistent, but he also needs to improve his overall operation time. He can be a bit slow getting off a punt.

To challenge O’Donnell, the Bears signed Ryan Winslow as an undrafted free agent out of Pitt. He averaged 44.5 yards per punt last season and, more importantly, has a 4.36-second average hang time. Winslow is also good with directional kicking. The battle in training camp should be a close one.

The Bears' long snapper will be Patrick Scales, who missed all of 2017 with an ACL injury. Scales is healthy now and has been the Bears' best snapper since Patrick Mannelly retired following the 2013 season.

In the return game, the Bears don’t have another Devin Hester on the roster, but they have some competent players. Second-year pro Tarik Cohen will be the No. 1 returner entering training camp, and he's capable of returning kickoffs and punts. Cohen averaged 22.4 yards on kickoff returns and another 9.4 yards on punt returns. He returned one punt for a touchdown.

Reserve running back Bennie Cunningham, receiver Taylor Gabriel and rookie receiver Anthony Miller will also get a look as kickoff returns. Safety Eddie Jackson, receiver DeMarcus Ayers and Miller also will get looks as punt returners.

As far as who's on the coverage units, the exact names won’t be known until the final cut in early September, but it's a given that the fourth, fifth and sixth receivers as well as the backup defensive backs and linebackers have to be strong special teams contributors. Sherrick McManis, Josh Bellamy and John Timu will most likely be on the 53-man roster because of their coverage skills.

Greg Gabriel is a former NFL talent evaluator who's an on-air contributor for 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @greggabe.​