After losing the best kick returner in NFL history in free agency, the Bears are planning for a significant competition in training camp to find his replacement.
Devin Hester is now in Atlanta, which means Chicago is looking to fill both the punt return job and the kickoff return job. Among the candidates are Eric Weems, Micheal Spurlock, Armanti Edwards, Chris Williams and Michael Ford. Bears special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis says he’s confident that the team will be in good hands, no matter which option he chooses.
“We have a lot of experience back there,” DeCamillis told the team’s website. “There’s a lot of talent and that’s really what you want when you’re evaluating.”
Weems would appear to be the favorite, considering how well he played as a return man during his tenure with the Falcons. Weems has spelled Hester as a kickoff returner at times in the last two years, and his previous experience includes a Pro Bowl season in 2010 in which Weems averaged 12.8 yards on punt returns, 27.5 yards on kickoff returns and had a touchdown doing each, plus another kickoff return touchdown in the playoffs. Weems says he hopes to win the job.
“Most definitely I’ve missed doing it,” Weems said. “It’s still in the blood. I love doing it. That’s what I was in Atlanta doing. That’s what I made the Pro Bowl doing. There’s no question in my mind that I love doing it. . . . I’ve been patient for the last two years and now I feel like it’s my turn, and I’m going to take full advantage of it,” Weems said.
Spurlock and Edwards both signed early this month after Domenik Hixon, who was also expected to vie for the return job, suffered a torn ACL in Organized Team Activities.
“[Hixon] was one of the guys we were really looking forward to seeing,” DeCamillis said. “It’s just a tough break for him. He’s been a very productive guy in the league as far as a returner. It’s just one of those things that happens. It’s too bad for him and too bad for us.”
Losing Hixon provided an opportunity for Spurlock and Edwards, who have both had some experience returning kicks in the NFL. Williams doesn’t have much NFL experience, but he’s the all-time record holder for kick return touchdowns in a season in the Canadian Football League, having run back six kicks for scores in 2012. Ford likewise doesn’t have much NFL experience but was second in the SEC in kickoff returns in 2012, his final year at LSU.
One of those players will earn the job in Chicago. With the departure of Hester, the Bears’ return men will have big shoes to fill.