Bears in 2012 will be extra special

Nearly every move made by Chicago Bears GM Phil Emery this offseason, through both veteran free agency and the draft, was meant to boost the club's special teams.

After selecting former Boise State defensive end Shea McClellin with his first pick as general manager of the Chicago Bears, Phil Emery commented on what he foresees McClellin bringing to the team.

"Obviously it helped fill a need for us as a pass rusher," said Emery. "We are also very excited about Shea in terms of his all-downs ability. This is an all-downs football player, including special teams. This is a four-down player. Our special teams coaches gave him a blue level grade as a special teams player."

Hold the presses. Did Emery just reference the special teams ability of his first-round pick?

Typically, an NFL team looks for an All Pro with its first rounder. These are supposed to be the guys that make or break a franchise; whose contributions on either offense or defense will take an organization to the next level. It needs to be an impact player that can step on the field right away and dominate at his position.

Special teams? That's what the sixth and seventh rounds are for, not the first. Yet there was Emery, just minutes after the selection, touting the potential of McClellin as a special teams player.

When asked about it the following day, McClellin confirmed Emery's comments.

"I think I'm definitely going to be on special teams here. I think they believe I can do that and I know I can do that," said McClellin. "I expect to have a big impact on special teams."

As the draft progressed, Emery continued to expound on the special teams potential of nearly every pick.

On third-round CB Brandon Hardin:
"Our special teams coaches have spent a lot of time watching [Hardin's] past tape. We gave him a blue rating for special teams, a critical component of our team. We feel like we're going to get a lot of mileage out of Brandon right from the get-go in terms of special teams."

On fourth-round TE Evan Rodriguez:
"To find this guy in the fourth round, some of it is because of his past issues, but to find this guy, to find the right fit for us, for a guy we feel can be in our base personnel and be a special teams player because of his speed and toughness, is a good find for the Bears."

On sixth-round CB Isaiah Frey:
"Isaiah has to show us he can be a gunner and be a guy on [special] teams."

On seventh-round CB Greg McCoy:
"Greg McCoy [is] a blue-level special teams player in terms of a returner."

Emery's efforts to improve Chicago's special teams were also at the forefront of his veteran free agent acquisitions. During the first week of free agency, he signed LB Blake Costanzo, whom has never started an NFL game and has been a special teams player almost exclusively during his six-year career.

"Blake has done some dynamic things as a special teams player, evident in his four forced fumbles and one of them in the playoff game against New Orleans this past year," said Emery.

Following Costanzo, Emery signed Eric Weems, who earned a trip to the Pro Bowl and was named an All Pro in 2010 for his outstanding season as a kick returner.

"Eric Weems we feel like is going to come in and contribute as a receiver, a punt returner, a kick returner and a cover player on [special] teams," Emery said.

The club then signed Devin Thomas, who also has experience as a returner. And let's not forget that Chicago has arguably the greatest return man in the game in Devin Hester.

Chicago annually has one of the best special teams units in the league, regardless of the yearly turnover in personnel. Special teams coordinator Dave Toub is one of the best in the business. His return and coverage units are the reason the Bears more often than not win the field-position battles on Sundays.

The team places a lot of importance on the game's third phase, yet did they place too much value on special teams this offseason? Giving Toub weapons is commendable but it's likely, given his skill as a coach, you could pull 11 guys off the street and he'd still be able to get them to perform at a high level.

Besides signing guard Chilo Rachal, who was benched by the 49ers last season, the club completely ignored the offensive line this offseason. Yet they added eight players expected to contribute on special teams. Which begs the question: Is special teams more important than keeping your franchise quarterback upright?

Emery added a lot of pieces to the roster this offseason. A case could be made that the team didn't need major upgrades on offense or defense, just a piece or two here and there. With the way the Bears were playing during their five-game win streak last season, it would be tough to argue that point.

Yet the overall mindset of Emery is worrisome, especially when he's looking at first-round draft picks as potential special teams contributors, which is almost unheard of in today's NFL. While special teams are important, offense and defense are what win championships. Continuing to place too much emphasis on this phase of the game could compromise the club going forward.

On the bright side, Chicago should have easily the best special teams units in the league in 2012. Once again, the Bears should be able to win the field position battle week in and week out, which go a long way toward helping the club win games.

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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of Bear Report magazine and BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.

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