80 percent healthy, free-agent signee makes impact on special teams, offense
By Vaughn McClure, Chicago Tribune reporter
6:26 p.m. CDT, August 19, 2012
Eric Weems felt 80 percent healthy Saturday yet managed to accumulate 123 all-purpose yards in the Bears' 33-31 exhibition victory over the Redskins.
Imagine how productive the veteran receiver/return specialist could be at full strength.
Weems admitted being frustrated after spraining his left ankle early in training camp. The injury kept him from displaying the type of toughness he brought to the Bears when he signed a three-year contract with a maximum value of $6 million and $1.7 million guaranteed this offseason.
"It was a mid-sprain, not a high one,'' Weems said. "They didn't tell me a specific time frame: just day to day. It just depended on how well I healed.''
He looked fine Saturday.
Weems showed a glimpse of his explosiveness when he fielded a second-quarter kickoff, sped straight ahead, then veered right for a 48-yard gain. It would have been the best kickoff return of the night had teammate Lorenzo Booker not taken one back 105 yards for a score.
Weems' ability to hit the hole at full speed is the reason he could become the primary kickoff returner — depending on Devin Hester's role on offense.
Last season with the Falcons, Weems finished 18th in the league with an average of 23.5 yards per kickoff return (no touchdowns). Hester was 24th at 21.9 but had a 98-yard kickoff return for a score against the Vikings.
Special teams coordinator Dave Toub said in some cases on kickoffs, Weems' straight-forward return style will benefit the Bears more than Hester's elusiveness.
"With what we do, we do a lot of doubles teams, and we want to run right at the double team,'' Toub explained. "And sometimes it takes a different type of guy to be able to hit that thing north and south and run through a crowd. That fits Weems' personality. That's what he does well.
"It's going to be a good, change of pace for us to have two guys: a guy that hits it north and south like Weems, and a guy like Devin who can make you miss and get outside.''
Hester, who holds the NFL record with 17 combined kick return touchdowns, continues to work as the primary punt returner. But even Hester admitted he would be willing to take a lesser role on kickoff returns if he remains an integral part of the offense, as promised. Toub also mentioned the possibility of using Hester and Weems together on kickoff returns to challenge opponents.
But Weems, who also had a 20-yard punt return nullified by a penalty Saturday, won't be measured simply by his returns. He showed he could contribute to the offense with a 33-yard, catch-and-run off a pass from Jason Campbell.
Weems, named to the 2010 Pro Bowl as a special-teamer, was a top free-agent target for the Bears "because of the way he plays gunner,'' Toub said. "He plays with great effort. He never gives up. Even though he gets doubled and he might get knocked down, he's still going to make the play. … He's just a tough guy.''
Weems believes he'll be even tougher at full strength, and he's getting closer, though he said the ankle sill hurts when he fights pressure.
"I'm just really trying to get myself back healthy,'' Weems said. "That's my focus right now, so I can be 100 percent."