Bears still searching for a returner

The Chicago Bears still lack starters and both the punt- and kick-return positions, and the torn ACL Domenik Hixon suffered in the first practice of OTAs doesn't help the problem.

This offseason, the Chicago Bears signed wide receiver Domenik Hixon to a one-year deal worth $740,000.

The Bears were hoping Dixon could compete for the club's third wide receiver spot, a position left open after Earl Bennett was released. Yet the coaching staff is high on second-year receiver Marquess Wilson and Hixon has never caught more than 49 passes or two touchdowns in any of his six NFL seasons.

More likely, Hixon was brought in to compete for the job of kick and punt returner, a position left wide open after the departure of Devin Hester. Hixon has 57 punt returns and 80 kick returns in his career.

Unfortunately for the team, it took Hixon all of an hour to tear his ACL during the first practice of OTAs. It was the third torn ACL of his career and likely his last.

"I'm disappointed that I won't be playing for a bears team that has the players and coaches to WIN the Super Bowl," Hixon wrote on his Facebook page.

His injury depletes an already-thin group of players vying to be Hester's replacement.

On the official OTA roster, the only players listed as kick returners are Hixon and Eric Weems, who is one of the main frontrunners for the job. Weems earned a Pro Bowl nod as a kick returner for the Atlanta Falcons in 2010, so he's more than capable of handling the role, although at age 29, he's surely lost a step.

Also at the top of the list is Chris Williams, a former CFL player the Bears signed in Week 17 last season. In 2012, Williams recorded six return touchdowns for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, which set a Canadian Football League record. He has blazing speed – he posted a 4.39 40-yard dash at the 2009 NFL Scouting Combine – the type that makes him a homerun threat every time he touches the ball.

Special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis discussed during minicamp what he sees as Williams' greatest asset.

"I would say his speed first of all," DeCamillis said. "He also had really good vision when you watched the film. The guys in New Orleans didn't want to lose him. I know that. I talked to a couple of guys when we signed him and they weren't real happy at the Senior Bowl. They weren't real happy. They wanted to keep him, so that's a good sign."

Yet Williams is tiny. He's listed at 5-8, 175, and he looks even smaller in person. He's bounced around the practice squads of three NFL teams since going undrafted out of New Mexico State in 2009 due mainly to his size. It's hard to see him getting up after a head-on hit with a 240-pound linebacker who has a 40-yard head of steam.

Michael Ford rounds out the top of the list. As a junior for LSU in 2012, Ford returned 20 kicks for 549 yards, fourth most in the SEC. In last year's preseason, Ford had a 100-yard kickoff return against the San Diego Chargers and, during the regular season, he returned five kicks for 37 yards.

Other veteran options include Josh Bellamy, who returned five kicks for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2012; Shaun Draughn, who averaged 23.3 yards per return on 23 kick returns for that same 2012 Chiefs team; and Josh Morgan, who has 8 punt returns and 27 kick returns during his six-year career.

The rookie class also carries a few options. First rounder Kyle Fuller returned just three punts at Virginia Tech yet he was working as a punt returner during special teams drills at rookie minicamp.

Fourth rounder Ka'Deem Carey returned 26 kicks for Arizona in 2011 and Senorise Perry, signed as a tryout player following rookie minicamp, had 22 collegiate kick returns.

The sleeper candidate is fourth-round safety Brock Vereen. He didn't return any kicks during his four-year career at Minnesota but he was an All-State kick returner during high school. During OTAs, the special teams practices consisted of nothing but field goal drills, so we never got a look at the return crew. Yet during the deep field goals, Vereen returned the kicks that came up short of the cross bar.

The Bears have a lot of options and plenty of time to find starting kick and punt returners, but it's not a cupboard brimming with top-tier options. A quality returner has a lot of value in the NFL, so finding a player who can help in the battle for field position is a must.

Someone will emerge, it's just unclear at this point who that will be.

"We've got some guys that can return for us," DeCamillis said. "It's going to be a competitive situation right there and we'll find a replacement and get it going."


Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.


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