We come to our second to final position-by-position breakdown as we close in on packing our bags and heading to Bourbonnais, Ill., and the campus of Olivet Nazarene University. This morning we target special teams.
Projected starters: K Robbie Gould, 6-0, 185, 5th season, Penn State; P Brad Maynard, 6-1, 188, 13th season, Ball State; LS Pat Mannelly, 6-5, 265, 12th season, Duke; KR Danieal Manning, 5-11, 202, 4th season, Abilene Christian; PR Devin Hester, 5-11, 190, 4th season, Miami.
2009 salary cap numbers
Robbie Gould $2,905,200
Devin Hester $6,885,833
Pat Mannelly $962,200
Danieal Manning $885,200
Brad Maynard $1,392,280
Number of specialists on the roster at the start of the 2008 season: 3
Projected number of specialists on 2009 roster at start of the season: 3
The skinny: The Bears didn't get the kind of electric scores they grew accustomed to from Hester, but they still scored on special teams in 2008. Manning ran back a kickoff for a touchdown, Brandon Lloyd and Garrett Wolfe both scored on blocked punts and Zack Bowman scored on a muffed punt. Alex Brown also blocked a 38-yard field goal try by Green Bay's Mason Crosby in the Week 16 meeting with 18 seconds remaining in regulation. The Bears went on to win in overtime. So, it's not like Dave Toub's unit was without major contributions. No one can pinpoint exactly why Hester lost his edge in the return game. He averaged 21.9 yards on kickoffs where he saw about every gimmick imaginable and was worse on punts, averaging only 6.2 yards. There are a handful of theories, all of them probably valid in part. The biggest reason is pretty simple--Hester got a lot more work on offense and that took away from his return game. The stats certainly support that thinking. Hester was on the field for 631 offensive snaps last season vs. 226 in 2007. He had 121 special teams snaps in 2008 vs. 182 in 2007. Another key factor to consider is the turnover the Bears had on special teams. Playing without Pro Bowl special teamer Brendon Ayanbadejo for the first time, Hester's return units lacked the mojo they had enjoyed previously. Ayanbadejo wasn't just a tremendous player, he was a leader and knew when the group needed an infusion of energy.
Still, special teams remained solid and wound up finishing eighth in the composite rankings compiled by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News after back-to-back No. 1 finishes. Manning would have been the NFC's Pro Bowl return man if he would have been promoted before the Nov. 16 game at Green Bay. He led the league in kickoff returns at 29.7 yards, and his success may lead opponents to approach him differently this time around. The coverage teams were solid but not as good as they have been in the past.
Kicker Robbie Gould finished the season making 11 consecutive kicks. He was 18-for-18 inside 40 yards and 26-for-29 overall. His kickoffs were stronger through the course of the season. Gould has still yet to make a 50-yard field goal but there have not been many chances where Lovie Smith opted to punt when a long field goal was a real option. Punter Brad Maynard is coming off one of the better seasons in his long career, setting a personal and franchise high last year with 40 punts inside the 20-yard line and only five touchbacks.
Wolfe was the top tackler last season and really blossomed in the role. Linebacker Jamar Williams had far more special teams snaps than anyone else on the roster and will need to be more effective in that role this season. Corey Graham could be expected to notch 15 or more tackles.
Quite simply, Mannelly is the most consistent performer on the roster.
The upside: Hester returns to form on punts, Manning continues to excel on kickoffs and a great debate ensues--which Bears' return man should go to the Pro Bowl? Perhaps more importantly, Toub finds himself a special teams demon to take the role of Ayanbadejo when Nick Roach, forced out of a starting role on defense by Pisa Tinoisamoa, steps forward to lead the unit.
The downside: Hester remains lost on punt returns and surrenders the job to Earl Bennett, who proves he can't multitask either when it comes to being a starting receiver and returning kicks. Maynard's occasionally achy hamstring flares up.
On the hot seat: Joey LaRocque. The seventh-round pick was elevated to he 53-man roster for Week 3 last season and played a key role on special teams, but that is the only place the linebacker was involved. Toub usually gets one player at the end of the roster that he can hand pick to help his units, and the squeeze could be on LaRocque this time around. A lower back injury kept him out of much of the offseason program and with the addition of rookie Marcus Freeman, it's going to be tough for him to make the cut.
Final thought: Toub has proven to be one of the more consistent position coaches the Bears have had in some time when it comes to production by his group. What makes that impressive is the turnover special teams faces on a year-to-year as well as a game-to-game basis. There's been plenty of hand wringing over Hester's slump last season but that is only because he spoiled the Bears with the greatest back-to-back seasons by a return man in the history of the game. The Bears should still be solid even if Hester isn't visiting the end zone on occasion.