Bears positional analysis: Special teams
Bears positional analysis: Special teams
Last in a 10-part series
When Brendon Ayanbadejo entered free agency after the 2007 season, the Bears quickly found themselves competing with a familiar face for the Pro Bowl performer's services.
Kevin O'Dea had just left his post as Bears' assistant special teams coach to head up that group for the New York Jets, and O'Dea was in hot pursuit of Ayanbadejo. The Bears eventually wound up withdrawing their offer to Ayanbadejo and he signed with the Baltimore Ravens.
Fast forward to the present and you have to wonder if former special teams assistant Chris Tabor is planning to make a similar ploy in Cleveland. Tabor left the Bears last month to become the special teams coordinator for the Browns, and Corey Graham is certain to be a coveted free agent when the new league year begins. Interestingly, O'Dea has returned to his former role to replace Tabor. The Bears surely will want Graham back, but it would be surprising if he didn't take advantage of the opportunity to test the open market.
Graham doesn't have Pro Bowl credentials, but anyone who has evaluated his performance knows he has been playing at an elite level. In fact, special teams coordinator Dave Toub let it be known last month that he thought it was an injustice Graham was bypassed for the Pro Bowl in favor of Atlanta's Eric Weems.
Toub's point is valid. Weems played on special teams for the Falcons, but he wasn't a coverage ace like Graham, and he got notoriety actually as a returner. Weems had one kickoff and one punt return for a touchdown and that made him a more popular pick in the balloting system than Graham, who led the Bears with 25 tackles, all solos.
So Tabor and the rest of the NFL know what Graham, a fifth-round draft pick from New Hampshire in 2007, is capable of doing. Graham is still young -- he doesn't turn 25 until July -- and he's as good as you will find on punts as a gunner.
Graham is going to seek a team that will give him an opportunity to play defense, too. He made nine starts in 2008 at cornerback and is looking for a chance to be known for playing defense again.
"It's definitely a priority," Graham said last month. "I don't want to be known as just a special teams player. I want to go somewhere to get a chance to compete. I'm not asking for anything special. I'll see exactly what teams are interested in me and weigh my options."
Roll call: Kicker Robbie Gould, punter Brad Maynard, long snapper Pat Mannelly, kick returner Danieal Manning, kick returner/punt returner Devin Hester.
2010 overview: The Bears again finished as one of the best special teams units in the NFL and Toub again turned the trick while juggling personnel. The Bears made linebacker Tim Shaw one of their final cuts in September, a surprising move after he had set a franchise record with 30 tackles the year before. The Bears knew linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer was dealing with post-concussion symptoms and they still chose to unload Shaw because he didn't fit into a backup role on defense. When Hillenmeyer was placed on injured reserve after Week 1, cutting Shaw looked even worse. But he didn't have any trouble finding work as the Tennessee Titans claimed him on waivers.
Without Shaw, the Bears proved to be OK. Would they have been better with him? No question. But new linebacker Brian Iwuh was a better fit on defense and he proved capable on special teams, finishing tied for second with 18 total tackles and third with 10 solos. While Shaw led the team in tackles in 2009, Graham was the point production leader that season and he topped the charts for Toub again this season. Graham isn't the only top member of the coverage units headed to free agency. The team's top six tacklers all will be unrestricted:
Corey Graham 25 total tackles, 25 solos, 0 assists.
Garrett Wolfe 18 TT, 12 solos, 6 assists.
Brian Iwuh 18 TT, 10 solos, 8 assists.
Rashied Davis 16 TT, 8 solos, 8 assists.
Rod Wilson 11 TT, 6 solos, 5 assists.
Josh Bullocks 10 TT, 7 solos, 3 assists.
Davis was a valuable performer. While he didn't get into the mix at wide receiver on a consistent basis until the final third of the season, he was a core producer on teams and finished second to Graham in production. This puts general manager Jerry Angelo in an interesting position. Teams like to stock special teams with young players on their rookie contracts because those ideally are the guys you have as backups. But some veterans are needed, and the Bears have an unusually high number hitting the street.
Also scheduled to be a free agent is veteran punter Brad Maynard, who turned 37 this month. He's third all-time in the NFL in total punts and it remains to be seen if he has made his last kicks with the Bears after 10 seasons. Maynard's average was 40.1 yards and his net was 35.2. He's a skilled directional punter, and Maynard felt he got stronger as the season went on after having arthroscopic hip surgery a year ago. He wants to return, but it's unclear if he will be re-signed. Richmond McGee is being brought in on a futures deal and will compete for a job.
Long snapper Pat Mannelly also was headed to free agency but the Bears made a wise move in Week 17, signing him to a $2.29 million, two-year extension that included a $550,000 signing bonus. Once again, Mannelly was a model of consistency and bringing him back was an easy decision.
Kicker Robbie Gould continues to establish himself as the finest kicker in franchise history. He's now tied Kevin Butler with five 100-point seasons. He made 25 of 30 field goals and was perfect on 35 extra points. His 83.3 percent success kicking was the lowest since his rookie season in 2005, but he had one blocked and there is no mistaking the difficulty kickers and punters encounter at Soldier Field. There used to be talk about the lack of opportunities he got from 50 yards or more, but he hit three of four tries from that distance and his improved consistency was especially noticeable on kickoffs as he set a career high with 16 touchbacks. Consider he had 20 in the three previous seasons combined, and it's easy to see what a difference he made. Leg strength plays a role in it, but as Gould explained it's really a matter of proper technique that leads to improved distance.
Gould stands fifth on the all-time list in the NFL for accuracy among field goal kickers with a minimum of 100 kicks made. He's at 85.5 percent, just one point behind leader Nate Kaeding of the San Diego Chargers. Gould will remain a fixture for seasons to come.
Free agency/draft need: The Bears are going to have to prioritize what they will do with their own free agents when internal meetings are completed before the combine. Center Olin Kreutz, defensive tackle Anthony Adams, safety Danieal Manning and Graham look like players the team will want back. But it's a two-way street and the player has to want to return.
"I feel we're going to do business as usual, we'll have a plan for free agency and I am sure we will be able to get a few players in free agency," Angelo said in his end-of-season news conference. "We'll want to bring some of our own back and I am confident we will be able to do that."
A key decision must be made with Maynard, who remains consistent and has been a model pro. If the Bears choose to move on, they need to make sure they find a quality replacement because as teams who struggle with punters find out, it can be dangerous business.
The Bears may think about bringing back Davis on a modest deal because of what he brings in terms of leadership and skill on special teams. But he turns 32 this summer and the idea has to be to get younger and cheaper on special teams.
Looking ahead: Every team in the league faces considerable turnover on special teams on an annual basis. The Bears are going to look different in 2011 on special teams, but with Gould, Mannelly and Hester in place, it should be a strength for the team once again.
Bottom line: The faces change but the helmet doesn't and the Bears remain among the best in the NFL on special teams.