Training Camp Player to Watch: Special Teams

| July 15th, 2021

Cordarrelle Patterson was the best kickoff return man in football during his tenure with the Chicago Bears, and ascended into the ranks of the best kickoff return men of all-time. Patterson was also the club’s most reliable gunner on punt coverage and showed remarkable versatility across special teams units the last two seasons. This is a difficult player to replace, but the Bears certainly did not have the financial resources to bring him back at what can only be described as a vanity position in this modern NFL.

We know who the kicker and punter will be in 2021. We know Tarik Cohen will be back on punt returns, especially with Damien Williams brought in to lighten his offensive load. It is impossible to analyze who’ll handle Patterson’s “defending” roles, as those spots are often the byproduct of roster decisions to come later in the summer. (Sherrick McManis is still a free agent and the Bears are still interested in bringing him back.)

So who should fans watch when it comes to the kickoff return spot?

Williams, Damiere Byrd and Marquise Goodwin each have extremely-limited kick return experience and none of them profile for the position athletically. (Speed is great but most speedsters fail due to lack of vision, elusiveness.) Anthony Miller can do the gig but Miller might not be on the roster come September. Dazz Newsome seemed a natural to give work there, but his lack of experience doing so in college, coupled with a broken collarbone, leave it unlikely special teams coach Chris Tabor will get much time to experiment with him this preseason.

That leaves Khalil Herbert. And the rookie, even in a crowded running backs room, has a direct path to making the 53-man roster as a serious contributor.

Three reasons I like Herbert for the role:

  • He’s an exclusively downhill runner and that’s what kickoff returns are: find the seam and get what you can. (His highlight package at Tech above shows what I’m talking about.) He’s also incredibly difficult to bring down on first contact. Often if a kick return man survives first contact, he’s got a chance to score.
  • Pace and the personnel folks will be eager to score more points in the later rounds and getting serious contributions from a sixth-round pick would do just that.
  • Production. Herbert returned 16 kicks last season at an average clip of 26.9 yards per return last season. Nobody else on the current roster had anywhere near that production returning kickoffs over the last calendar year.

With training camp just days away, this feels like it could be Herbert’s job to lose. And maybe it should be.

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