The Chicago Bears made it a priority to upgrade its special teams this offseason. The team lost Corey Graham, the top special teams tackler last season, to the Ravens. To compensate, the club drafted a number of players that could fill his role. Additionally, during the first week of free agency, GM Phil Emery signed Eric Weems and Blake Costanzo, two accomplished special teams players.
"Two of the most dynamic special teams players in the league and good players in their own right," Emery said shortly after signing both players. "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. And Blake has done some dynamic things as a special teams player."
During his five seasons with the Atlanta Flacons, Weems proved himself as one of the top kick returners in the NFL. In 2010, he was third overall in kick return average (27.5 YDS), bringing one back 102 yards for a TD. He returned another 102-yarder for a touchdown in that season's playoff game versus the Green Bay Packers.
Also in 2010, he returned 18 punts for a 12.8 average – which, had it qualified, would have ranked third overall in the league – and another touchdown. For his efforts that year, Weems was named an All Pro selection and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl.
KR/PR Eric Weems
He regressed slightly last year – averaging 23.5 yards per kick return, 18th best in the league – yet that was better than any kick returner on Chicago's roster in 2011.
Emery knows firsthand the type of impact Weems can have on an NFL roster, having served as director of scouting for the Falcons when Weems was drafted in 2007.
"I am familiar with Eric. He was recruited and signed when I was in Atlanta," said Emery. "The thing that I always noticed during the time I was there was his persistence and his willingness to do anything and everything to help you win and the type of worker that he is on the field."
Weems will work alongside Devin Hester as Chicago's top primary return men this season, something that excites special teams coordinator Dave Toub.
"They're both very good, obviously," Toub said during veteran minicamp. "Hester is more of an outside guy. He wants to make people miss and get outside. Weems is a north and south, physical type returner. He's going to break a lot of tackles but he fits our scheme really well. We try to block people and have a point of attack. He's going to be able to hit that thing exactly where we want it. We're excited about Eric Weems."
Yet his value on special teams goes beyond just his ability to return kicks and punts. During offseason practices, Weems has been a member of each and every Bears special teams unit, including serving as the first-team gunner on punts.
Toub said he envisions Weems as the player most likely to replicate the production of Graham.
"That's the good thing about him. He's a good returner but he's here because he's a good cover guys, he's a number one gunner," said Toub. "He also plays five on kickoff. He won't take all the spots Corey played. Corey played two on the kickoff. He's more of an inside type guy. He's done a good job in that role.
"The other guy who is going to pick up a lot of slack is Blake Constanzo. He was a really good pickup for us. Those two guys were the No. 1 free agents we wanted on special teams. We got them both. They're both very good additions."
With Weems, the Bears can now limit Hester's duties on special teams if they so desire, saving him for what appears to be an increased role on offense under new coordinator Mike Tice. That said, when the Bears need a big return, Hester, arguably the greatest returner in the history of the game, will still be getting the call.
KR/PR Devin Hester
"He's still our No. 1 kickoff returner," Toub said. "When we need a big one Devin is going to be in there.
"We have the luxury of having Eric Weems. There will be times when we have them both back there. We'll kind of trick people in terms of who's getting the ball. We'll move one guy up there late. We'll also try to kick it away from Devin and get the ball to Weems at times. Then there will be times when just Weems is back there with a fullback. He's definitely a luxury for us."
The Bears annually have one of the best special teams units in the NFL, as they put arguably more emphasis on the third phase of the game than any other club.
"As far as his impact in relationship to Devin, we have a very strong tradition about having multiple returners," Emery said. "I think he greatly adds and helps Devin in that relationship of having more than one weapon as a returner, as a punt and kick returner. The nice thing about Eric, like Devin, is he also can play another position at wideout."
During the recent veteran minicamp, Weems was working as the team's fourth receiver, ahead of rookie Alshon Jeffery – who spent most of the three-day session on the sidelines with a leg injury – as well as Dane Sanzenbacher and Devin Thomas. Weems rotated in for all three starters – Hester, Earl Bennett and Brandon Marshall – showing very well out of the slot.
For his career, Weems has just 24 total receptions, with a single-season high of just 11 catches. So he's not going to post ridiculous numbers but it appears he's going to have a role in the offense, which, when you consider his importance on special teams, makes him a pretty valuable piece of the 2012 Bears roster.
"[Weems is] a luxury," said Toub. "I mean, this guy can take it to the house. He went to the Pro Bowl before. We're fortunate to have him."
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of 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.