One Skill Can Land Khalil Herbert Playing Time

The Bears come into the season in an unfamiliar position on special teams after two years with two of the best return players in the business.
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When the Bears held OTAs and minicamp, they learned little about their return situations at both punts and kicks.

If there is no contact allowed, it only becomes a matter of who can catch the ball. This could be about anyone. Even 352-pound defensive end Akiem Hicks showed he could catch a punt during a post-practice contest between offensive and defensive linemen last year.

In the last two years, both return spots were locked in with spectacular veterans in Tarik Cohen and Cordarrelle Patterson.

Circumstances could result in two entirely different players manning those spots this year and the Bears have to accept the fact the key will be owning possession after the kick or punt rather than a touchdown return.

"First of all, we still want to be the team that we've become, but obviously the trigger guy back there plays an important role in that," Bears special teams coordinator Chris Tabor said. "So we have to get those guys up to speed and then obviously find out what their best abilities are and tailor make it to their talents.”

The death of Cohen's brother in a tragic accident and his own return from a torn ACL had thoughts focused on something other than his lack of ability to return punts this year. It's possible the Bears could be looking at someone else doing punt return duties until they're comfortable with his knee's recovery. At one minicamp practice, coach Matt Nagy acknowledged Cohen had some knee stiffness, which hardly seemed encouraging 8 1/2 months after the injury. They would like Cohen doing it.

"He's a great returner, so if he's available, absolutely, no question," Tabor said.

Still, they have to be ready.

"The (Dazz) Newsome kid can do it also, if you’re talking about young kids," Tabor said. "We've got some guys on our roster, also, that we've been working."

Newsome averaged an outstanding 11.1 yards doing it in college and averaged a phenomenal 15.1 in 2018.

During minicamp, Newsome wasn't available either. He has a broken collarbone. When he is healthy again at training camp, he can be expected to resume this duty he performed in college.

A player on the roster who could also fit in well in the punt return duties is Anthony Miller, provided they don't trade him and that they deem him worth risking on such plays. Miller was the No. 2 receiver in the past until Darnell Mooney exploded on the scene. Now he is No. 3 and maybe even lower as both Damiere Byrd and Marquise Goodwin showed potential in minicamp for bigger gains with great speed.

Miller did it briefly last year when they were between punt returners after Cohen's injury. He averaged 11 yards a return, which would be excellent but he broke a 32-yarder and then averaged close to 6 yards on the other returns.

Kick returner is not quite so clear but if rookie Khalil Herbert can show he belongs on the roster then he could get the job.

"Herbert was a solid returner," Tabor said.

It takes someone fast but a little power besides that helps. It's why Patterson was so good at it as a big, strong and fast player. It wouldn't be out of the question for the Bears to call on Damiere Byrd or Marquise Goodwin to try it because of their speed, but neither has a speed/strength combo. They are 5-foot-9, 180 pounds.

The Bears threw spare receiver Rodney Adams in there some at OTAs and minicamp, and Miller has done it and been injured doing it in the past.

The ideal strength/speed combo would be Hebert, at 5-9, 212 and with 4.46 pro day time in the 40. He only had one year doing it to any extent in college, his final year at Virginia Tech. And he averaged 26.9 yards. It's why they gave him what must be called the majority of return opportunities at OTAs and minicamp.

Those mean little because of the physicality involved in returns. It's a battle to be decided in the three preseason games.

"A kick return essentially sometimes looks like a car accident and there's just a small crease," Tabor said. "Who's willing to go through that small crease and speed through there? Those are the things that we have to find out.

"Obviously ball security and all those things, but guys who can break tackles and play fearlessly, those are things we’ll be looking for."

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