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Competition for return jobs wide open

Posted Jul 1, 2014

With at least five players in the mix including Eric Weems, the competition for the Bears’ punt and kickoff return jobs will be among the most intriguing position battles in training camp.

With at least five players in the mix, the competition for the Bears’ punt and kickoff return jobs will be among the most intriguing position battles this summer in training camp.

“We have a lot of experience back there,” said special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis. “There’s a lot of talent and that’s really what you want when you’re evaluating.”

The candidates for the two jobs include Eric Weems, Micheal Spurlock, Armanti Edwards, Chris Williams and Michael Ford. The openings were created during the offseason when the Bears chose not to re-sign free agent Devin Hester, who ultimately joined the Atlanta Falcons.

Eric Weems enters his third season with the Bears hoping to expand his duties in the return game.
Weems is the most experienced of the group. Spending his first five seasons with the Falcons from 2007-11, he averaged 25.6 yards on 113 kickoff returns and 10.6 yards on 77 punt returns. He was voted to the Pro Bowl in 2010 when he returned three kicks for touchdowns, including a 102-yard kickoff return in a playoff game against the Green Bay Packers.

“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.”

Weems was used sparingly in the return game the past two seasons with the Bears because he was behind Hester, who owns the NFL’s all-time record with 18 combined kick return touchdowns. But with Hester gone, Weems now has a chance to win the job.

“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.

The Bears signed Spurlock and Edwards June 3, exactly one week after veteran return man Domenik Hixon was lost for the season with a torn ACL in the Bears’ first OTA practice.  

“[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.”

Spurlock has played in 67 games with two starts over seven seasons with the Cardinals (2006), Buccaneers (2007, '09-11), 49ers (2009), Chargers (2012), Jaguars (2012), Lions (2013) and Cowboys (2013). He has averaged 9.6 yards with two touchdowns on 81 punt returns and 24.2 yards and three TDs on 107 kickoff returns.

Edwards has appeared in 41 games over four seasons with the Panthers (2010-13) and Browns (2013), averaging 7.0 yards on 40 punt returns and 19.7 yards on 15 kickoff returns while adding six receptions for 131 yards and three rushes for 12 yards.

Williams is an intriguing prospect the Bears signed last December off the New Orleans Saints practice squad. The New Mexico product played three seasons in the Canadian Football League with the Hamilton Tiger Cats, setting a CFL record with six return touchdowns in 2012.

Ford is also a possibility. The second-year pro from LSU ranked second in the SEC in kickoff returns in 2012, averaging 27.5 yards with four returns of at least 40 yards.

Asked what criteria will determine who wins the jobs, DeCamillis said: “The first thing is returner mechanics. You want a guy who can make all the catches. You want a solid punt return guy that can square up his body and make sure he makes the right decisions, because that’s really the biggest part of being a returner is making the right decision, in my opinion.

“The second thing is the talent with the ball in his hand. If you can identify a guy that can make plays in open space, that’s really what you are looking for. And it happens in different ways. Devin had great speed; that’s why he was good. There have been other guys that have excellent vision and they’re good, so you just have to find what that guy is good at and try to tailor the scheme towards him.”

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