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.