Robbie Gould is the longest tenured Bear and the only player left from the 2006-07 team that made it to Super Bowl XLI. The Penn State product is the leader of the special teams unit entering his 11th NFL season and he will need to be just that again in 2015.
With special teams coordinator Dave Toub, return man Devin Hester and 16-year long snapper Patrick Mannelly all leaving after the 2013-14 season, the Bears' special teams unit was not up to par a year ago.
Coordinator Joe DeCamillis tried to patch things together, but the team couldn't find a decent returner until Marc Mariani came along with six games left in the season. Plus long snapper Jeremy Cain and rookie punter Pat O'Donnell struggled at times.
Jeff Rodgers replaced DeCamillis this off-season after he came over alongside head coach John Fox. Rodgers was Denver's special teams coordinator for the last four seasons.
In terms of personnel, O'Donnell enters Year 2 of his young NFL career while the Bears have replaced Cain with longtime Kansas City Chiefs long snapper Thomas Gafford. Mariani should be the favorite to be the kick and punt returner, but the Bears also have some intriguing undrafted rookies in the mix.
Here's an Inside Look at the current Bears' special teams in the 10th and final installment of this series. You can read the previous story about the quarterbacks.
Gould - The 33-year-old will have to deal with the changes the NFL made this off-season that moved the extra point attempt to the 15-yard line. Teams can still opt to go for two where they will get the ball at the two-yard line.
Gould owns an 85.6 field goal percentage which is the seventh-most accurate mark in league history. He's a perfect 79 for 79 on field goal attempts from 20-29 yards out, so the rule change won't have too much of an effect on him. He has only made 30 or more field goals twice in his career (2006, 07), with 2006 being his lone Pro Bowl appearance.
He missed the final four games of last season due to a right quadriceps injury forcing the Bears to sign Jay Feely. Gould made nine of 12 attempts for the year. Look for his attempts to skyrocket this season. He has three years left on the four-year, $15 million deal he signed in 2013.
O'Donnell - Last year's sixth-round pick from Miami, O'Donnell ranked 28th overall in average yards per punt (43.8). His competition last training camp was Tress Way. Way signed with Washington after O'Donnell beat him out for the spot with the Bears. In Washington, Way finished the 2014 season atop the league in average yards per punt (47.5).
Well, now the hope is O'Donnell can improve tremendously under a new coaching staff this season. He ranked second in touchbacks (3), 13th in returned kicks (33), 18th in fair catches (19) and 28th in punts inside the 20-yard line (20). His lone blocked punt came against Green Bay in a Week 10 beatdown by the Packers, 55-14, when wide receiver Jarrett Boykin kick blocked O'Donnell's punt (watch clip here).
O'Donnell should be able to take that next step this season.
Gafford - He's an eight-year veteran, who has appeared in 105 straight games with Kansas City after taking over as the long snapper in the middle of the 2008 season. Gafford actually spent part of the 2008 preseason with the Bears with Mannelly recovering from an injury.
The 32-year-old signed a one-year, $950,000 deal with the Bears on Mar. 18 and he says he is excited for this opportunity.
“I’ve been familiar with John Fox and Jeff Rodgers from playing against them in Denver,” Gafford said via the Tribune. “I knew there was some familiarity there and I knew if the opportunity came up, I would jump on it. Why wouldn’t you? It’s an incredible situation.”
Gafford should provide stability at the long snapper spot that has been craving just that since Mannelly retired last off-season.
Mariani - The 28-year-old Montana product returned his first kick since 2011 after signing with the Bears on Nov. 18 to replace Chris Williams (hamstring).
Mariani proceeded to appear in the final six games of the season as he returned 20 kickoffs for 510 yards (25.5 avg.) and seven punts for 29 yards (4.1 avg.).
Expect Mariani to win the job as he's back to being 100 percent healthy and his confidence level is high. His 67-yard kick return in the season finale against Minnesota is just a glimpse of what he can do in the return game.
Lovato - An undrafted free agent from Old Dominion, Lovato would only get a chance to play if Gafford suffered an injury and even then the Bears would still possibly bring in a veteran. Lovato's odds of making the team are very slim.
Norwood - The lone undrafted free agent in this group, Norwood has perhaps the bet chance out of anyone on the Bears' roster to beat out Mariani. Norwood had 102 total returns (64 punts, 38 kickoffs) in his four seasons at Baylor. He has two punt return touchdowns to his name.
Bellamy - He hasn't returned a kickoff since his rookie year with Kansas City in 2012. However, Bellamy proved to be effective with five returns for 101 yards, three being returned 20 yards or more.
Perry - With the Bears struggling to find one guy at kick returner, the undrafted rookie got his chance last season. Perry returned four kickoffs for 88 yards with three going for 20 yards or more.
Never say never to any three of the players in this group contributing to the punt or kick return game at some point this season.
Gould is the clear-cut leader of this group with Gafford being a very important piece. If he can settle in under Rodgers, the Bears will be much improved.
O'Donnell is the most worrisome player on the special teams unit. He has a huge leg, but needs to prove to be consistent. In the return game, Mariani has what it takes to be a shell of what Hester was for the Bears from 2006-13. That's all they really need from him, anything more is a bonus.
There isn't too much competition on special teams, but training camp should give the return guys listed above a chance to prove their worth.
The Bears officially open camp next Wednesday, July 29 in Bourbonnais.
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