Specialists Threaten to Blow Up Bears Cap

Cairo Santos removed Bears coach Matt Nagy from his misery, and now the cash-strapped team is going to have to pay for this success.

If there is any coach in the NFL who knows the value of special teams, it has to Bears coach Matt Nagy.

It took him until into the 2019 season to get over the Cody Parkey double-doink, and the scars are still evident every time he decides to go for a fourth down instead of kicking a field goal in the 45-yard-plus range.

Special teams is more than just field goals, although this can get a coach fired as fast as anything else.

There is punting, coverage and returns to take into account.

The Bears have major free agency issues arising this offseason in every single area of special teams, starting with punter Pat O'Donnell.

No one likes wasting draft picks on the kicking game but it's a critical part of the sport, and here are projections of who should stay and who goes in free agency on Bears special teams.

Happy Returns

Punter Pat O'Donnell — Now 30, O'Donnell is coming off his best overall Bears season. He averaged 45.7 per punt, 16th in the league but it was solid considering he's punting in severe winds on the lakefront at Soldier Field. It was his second-best career average, but he finished tied for third in the NFL at getting punts downed inside the 20 (28) with just five touchbacks. O'Donnell isn't paid in excess, ranking in the middle of the pack at a cap cost of $1.85 million last year, and the Bears likely will pursue a contract extension provided they can keep it within reason. It shouldn't be a problem.

Kicker Cairo Santos — A great success story last season as he set Bears records for field goal percentage (93.8%) and consecutive field goals made (26) as a practice squad kicker who was called on to replace injured Eddy Pineiro. Santos played for only $991,000 last year and the Bears have to pay him now or face a return to the kicking uncertainty they had in 2018 and 2019 with Parkey and Pineiro.

Santos turns 30 this season and had one strong season with Kansas City in 2016 (88.6%) before injuries and inconsistency caused him to bounce around the league to the Rams, Buccaneers and Titans before landing in Chicago. This is one free agent the Bears can't afford to let get away and Nagy should try to lock him in the basement at Halas Hall if he has to during free agency.

LS Patrick Scales — Dependable as a player, the only problem the Bears ever had was his unavailability one season due to a knee injury. He made $1.05 million last year and is 33 this year, still in his prime for a long snapper.

Who Goes

Kick Returner Cordarrelle Patterson — Second all-time in NFL kick return average (29.9), Patterson turns 30 in March and can provide occasional help on offense in addition to return duties. The Bears can't afford to bring him back at anything close to last year's cap cost of $5.25 million as his level of contribution hasn't been significant enough. He has just one total offensive TD with two kick-return TDs in Chicago for two seasons and last year was paid about twice the level of most other top kick returners, according to Spotrac.com. Patterson was the highest-paid kick returner in the league and led the NFC in kick return average while earning All-Pro and Pro Bowl status for the fourth time.

Patterson did help the Bears finish seventh in average starting field position for drives with his returns and on offense had a career-high 64 rushing attempts and gained just 3.6 yards a carry with a long run of 13 yards in 2020. He has 32 receptions in two Bears seasons.

The Bears have to weigh the fact kick returns no longer possess the significance they once did when they make a free agency decision. Put it this way, either the higher pay goes, or Patterson goes.

Returner Dwayne Harris — A return man who didn't get much chance to produce due to an triceps tear. He was brought in after Tarik Cohen's season-ending ACL tear. At 34 this season, it's unlikely he'd be brought back unless they had another injury disaster.

Returner DeAndre Carter — A midseason acquisition due to injuries to Cohen and Harris, he played for $1 million. He's actually a restricted free agent who played for $750,000 but the Bears are unlikely to tender him any type of offer and he'll become an unrestricted free agent.

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