Much has been made about the Chicago Bears improvements on the defensive side of the ball due to the additions of Danny Trevathan, Jerrell Freeman, Akiem Hicks, Leonard Floyd and Jonathan Bullard.
With sizable roster turnover it’s easy to focus on the large improvements made on defense, but don’t overlook the improvements made with special teams in mind.
Since the departure of Devin Hester in 2014, the team’s return game has been inconsistent at best. Both coverage units have been troubled over the last few years as well, which seemed to be a focal point in this year’s additions.
WR/KR Deonte Thompson
Thompson was signed mid-season last year and his average of 29.2 yards per return in 14 attempts would have qualified for second best in the league. Thompson also brings slight upside as a receiver - he caught a 45-yard pass in the 2015 season finale - so re-signing him was close to a no-brainer.
CB Sherrick McManis
Most fans remember McManis for his troubles as the team’s slot corner early in the season but he's been a core special teams player for years and has value on each unit. He led all Bears in special teams tackles (17) by a wide margin last season. While he may not be a starting-quality defender, his special teams value made him a must re-sign.
WR Marc Mariani
Not only was Mariani a reliable slot target for quarterback Jay Cutler late last year - 300 receiving yards on 22 catches, 19 of which went for first down - but he was the club's full-time punt returner and early-season kick returner. His 6.6 yards per punt return last season ranked 21st out of 24 qualifying returners, so he has work to do if he wants to retain that role, but Mariani provides good depth on offense as well as in the return game.
OLB Sam Acho
Acho was among the team leaders in special teams tackles (8, fourth best) and total snaps played last year. He also provides quality depth as a run defender at outside linebacker. Acho’s versatility and overall leadership gives him good value, even at a crowded position.
Free Agent Additions
DB/KR Omar Bolden
Bolden may be the Bears' best special teams move this off-season. The former Arizona State product hasn’t had much of a chance to flash as a defensive back but his explosion in the return game and versatility on each special teams unit has made him a very valuable piece.
He had an injury shortened year in 2015, yet averaged 24.6 yards on five punt returns, which includes an 88-yard touchdown return. In 2014, he averaged 33 yards per kick return - which would have led the league had he qualified - with a long of 77 yards.
Bolden possesses the explosiveness Chicago needs in the return game and should push for both returner roles, along with a top gunner spot.
LS Aaron Brewer
Since the retirement of Bears great Patrick Mannelly, the team has had a revolving door at long snapper.
Since Mannelly’s retirement in 2014, the club has used Brandon Hartson, Jeremy Cain, Thomas Gafford and Patrick Scales. Now Aaron Brewer will be thrown into the mix to compete with Scales in training camp for the job.
It’s hard to quantify just how good or bad a long snapper is, unless they make an egregious mistake, yet the value of the position can't be overstated. It's worth noting that Brewer has consistently stayed in the league since his rookie season in 2012.
ILB Nick Kwiatkoski
With the free-agent acquisitions of Trevathan and Freeman, Kwiatkoski’s main contributions will come on special teams his rookie season, assuming the two veterans stay healthy.
That said, Kwiatkoski is a very instinctual player and should add value to each coverage, which ultimately should help him grow as a potential starter a few years down the road.
S DeAndre Houston-Carson
As of now, the team’s second starting safety position is wide open, which means Houston-Carson could end up in that role. More than likely, either a veteran player like Chris Prosinski or Harold Jones-Quartey, or fourth-rounder Deon Bush - who himself is a quality special teams player - will likely win the starting job, which leaves Houston-Carson’s value on special teams and as a backup.
Luckily for the Bears, Houston-Carson blocked nine kicks in his four collegiate years. Yes, nine blocks. He brings versatility and big-hit ability along with his knack for blocking kicks.
WR Kieren Duncan
A small-profile receiver at 5-9, Duncan possesses blazing speed - he ran a hand-timed 4.25 40 time at his pro day.
Duncan has Hester-like ability as a returner, whether that be with his tremendous straight-line speed or his impressive agility and elusiveness to make opposing players miss.
Despite his potential, Duncan has a steep uphill climb ahead of him and will have to make his mark on more than one ST unit, all while showing he can contribute as a receiver.
For better or worse?
In the Phil Emery era, the Bears did not put a high priority on special teams and it showed. GM Ryan Pace’s first year was about initiating a complete transition but it's clear this off-season the Bears want to be better on special teams. With these personnel additions, there's no reason they can't accomplish that goal.
Special teams coach Jeff Rodgers' return units lacked explosiveness in 2015, which should be rectified by the return of Thompson, coupled with the additions of Bolden and potentially Duncan.
The team's coverage units have been gashed of late and have lacked discipline as a whole, but with more talent and speed this year, Rodgers should be able to create a better overall product, which could make the difference in more than one game this season.