Training Camp Preview: Special Teams

In Part III of a three-part series, JC takes a look at the Chicago Bears on all phases of special teams. With training camp finally set to open at the end of this week, here are five crucial questions that need to be answered if the Midway Monsters are going to make it back to the postseason in 2009.

1. Can Hester be electrifying again in 2009 like he was in '06 and '07?
After just two seasons in professional football, Devin Hester was already being referred to as the greatest return man in history and gave the Bears a special-teams advantage never seen before. The former Miami Hurricane took the country by storm as a rookie in 2006 by scoring an incredible six times on returns, then added another on the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLI, and he proved it wasn't a fluke the following season with six more return touchdowns. However, Hester failed to reach paydirt on a kickoff or punt even once in '08, averaging only 21.9 yards per kick return – he was replaced midseason by Danieal Manning – and just 6.2 yards per punt return.

The coaching staff is going to let Hester keep returning punts even though he's also expected to be the primary receiver on offense, but if he struggles as badly as he did a year ago, don't be surprised if he's taken off special teams entirely.

Gould is yet to connect from 50 yards or longer.
Getty Images: Doug Pensinger

2. When is Gould finally going to split the uprights from 50-plus?
Even though his point total has dropped from 143 in 2006 to 126 in '07 to 119 this past season, Robbie Gould is still the most accurate kicker the franchise has ever produced and connected at a razor-sharp 89.7 percent clip in '08. That being said, he didn't even attempt a field goal of 50 yards or longer for the third time in four campaigns – his career long remains 49 yards – and is 0-for-2 from 50-plus as a Bear. Gould is automatic from inside 40 and was a respectable 8-for-11 from 40-49 a year ago, but it's difficult to call the baby-faced specialist an elite option at his position until he drills a 54-yarder on the last play of the half to give his team three more points before heading to the locker room.

Leg strength has nothing to do with it because Gould regularly connects from well beyond 50 yards in practice, and coach Lovie Smith is partially to blame since he seemingly always errs on the side of conservatism.

3. Who can be the next Ayanbadejo and lead the coverage units?
Special teams coordinator Dave Toub is one of the best in the business and has worked wonders despite a revolving door of personnel at his disposal, but he missed Pro Bowler Brendon Ayanbadejo this past season. There are still several productive tacklers on the coverage units to brag about, even 5-7, 186-pound running back Garrett Wolfe, but Toub has always been a fan of Nick Roach and should get to use the speedy linebacker more often in 2009 – he's most likely going to lose his starting job on the strong side to free agent addition Pisa Tinoisamoa. While the return teams will be in good hands with Hester and Manning back deep, kick coverage was not as strong in '08 as it had been the previous two years.

If there is a rookie to watch on special teams, provided he makes the 53-man roster, sixth-round draft pick Al Afalava has a heat-seeking-missile attitude Toub will love.

Maynard pins the enemy inside the 20 regularly.
Getty Images: Jonathan Daniel

4. Is there reason to be worried about Maynard's 35-year-old leg?
Brad Maynard enjoyed a sensational 2008 and just didn't get enough credit along the way, as the former Ball State Cardinal posted a net average of 38.1 yards per punt – good enough for 12th in the NFL – despite a gross average of only 41.2. His accuracy and touch were on display all season long, leading all punters with 40 punts downed inside the enemy 20-yard line and tying for first place with a total of 27 punts fair caught. Maynard attempted 96 punts on the year, second most in the league, yet only 36 of those attempts were returned, 14th in the league.

While Maynard simply does not boom many punts these days, as evidenced by the fact that 10 punters topped his season-best 67-yarder, he may not have to since a Jay Cutler-led offense should be moving the chains much more regularly than a Kyle Orton-led attack.

5. Will Manning be a one-year wonder returning kickoffs?
Bear Report has been singing the praises of Manning ever since he was a rookie, professing that he is the best pure athlete on the team and would win handily if the Bears held a decathlon at Halas Hall. But Manning has not been able to translate all of his physical ability into success on the field as a defensive back, having moved around from free safety to cornerback to nickel back with more failure than success on his highlight reel thus far. That being said, the one-time second rounder took the ball and ran with it – literally – when he supplanted Hester for kick-return duties this past season, leading the league with an average of 29.7 yards per attempt and taking one 83 yards all the way to the house against the Saints in Week 15.

Manning is back deep on kickoffs once again this year, in part because he earned it and in part because Hester is too important offensively, so it will be interesting to see if his balls-to-the-wall style continues to be effective.

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John Crist is the Publisher of Bear Report and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit and become a Chicago Bears insider.

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