Next up in my Bears position battle series is the kick & punt returners. It won’t necessarily be the same guy, but the Bears have an opening at both positions for the first time in eight years. Devin Hester might have been the best punt return man of all-time and whoever takes over for him will have big shoes to fill. I’ll certainly miss the excitement generated every time he was waiting to return a kick or punt. Whoever his replacement is, it’s unfair to expect Hester-like production, but hopefully they can help the Bears win the field position battle and maybe run 1 or 2 back for old times sake. This might be the most wide open position on the Bears roster since they didn’t bring in any established returners in free agency and didn’t draft anyone with significant return experience either. The position is going to be filled by either last year’s backups (Weems, Ford), a standout from the CFL (Williams), a minimum contract free agent (Spurlock, Edwards) or an undrafted rookie (Perry, Lynch). There are plenty of candidates to cover, so I’ll get to it.
Weems, an 8-year NFL veteran, has the most return experience on the roster with 131 career kick returns and 78 punt returns. Weems made the Pro Bowl as a returner with the Falcons in 2010 due to a 27.5 yards per return average which was 3rd in the NFL that year, but his average has declined steadily with the Bears. Weems averaged only 17.8 yards per return in his first season with the Bears and a paltry 11.4 ypr last season albeit on only 5 return attempts. Returning kicks and punts in normally a young man’s game and it looks like the 28-year-old Weems may have lost a step or two since his productive returner days with the Falcons. Weems already agreed to a reduced salary and he does provide value on kick/punt coverage teams so his roster spot should be secure. I doubt the Bears will keep multiple return specialists so a guy like Weems who can provide value on coverage and as a backup receiver could have an edge in a roster crunch.
An undrafted free agent from LSU, Ford was a surprise addition to the roster last year after a strong performance in the preseason. Ford scored two TDs as a running back, but really shined as a kick returner with a 33. 5 YPR average including a 100 yard return that was stopped just short of the goal-line. Ford is a long-shot to beat out rookie Ka’Deem Carey for the backup running back job, but if he can perform well enough to lock up the 3rd RB job his value as a running back might give him a leg up on the rest of the returner field who don’t have as much value outside of special teams. Ford averaged 27.5 ypr his last year in college, so he has a good track record as a kick returner.
No one is going to replace Devin Hester, but Williams is the guy with the best chance to come close. Williams is small (5’9, 175) but an elite athlete; He ran a 4.28 40 at his pro day, had a 39″ vertical, and a 10’7″ broad jump at the 2009 combine. The Bears are Williams’ 4th NFL team, but he was cut after a few weeks by the Dolphins his rookie year, spent the rest of that season on the Browns practice squad, and last year on the Saints practice squad… so he has yet to see the field in an actual NFL game.
In between his stints with the Browns and Saints, Williams broke the record for most touchdown returns (6) in the Canadian league in 2012 and also had 83 catches for 1,298 yards and 11 receiving TDs as a slot receiver. I’ve been talking all off-season about the Bears need for a quick underneath slot receiver to compliment the Bears tall receivers who are better suited outside the hashes. Williams has the upside to be a dangerous return man and slot receiver, but he has zero NFL experience so it’s all potential at this point.
Brandon Marshall did invite Williams down to his compound in Florida over the off-season, so at least Williams has some familiarity with Cutler and his fellow receivers. I think Williams is the guy most fans want to win the job, but he has to prove that he can survive in the league at 5’9, 175, or that he has the speed to run away from NFL defenders, or hold on to the ball when he’s hit by much larger dudes. Williams was the best punt returner Canada had even seen, but he only returned 12 kicks in his time there without much success (21 ypr) so I would be surprised if he handles kicks for the Bears.