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Bears 2021 position preview: Special teams

Chicago Bears kicker Cairo Santos in action
Chicago Bears kicker Cairo Santos in action

The following is the ninth of nine position previews in advance of training camp.

Cairo Santos is back with the Bears following a record-breaking 2020 season.

Six days before the start of free agency in March, the veteran kicker signed a three-year contract extension to remain in Chicago through 2023.

After his career was derailed by injuries, Santos had a breakout season with the Bears last year. He broke two team records that were held by Robbie Gould, making 27 straight field goals and converting 93.8 percent of his field-goal attempts (30 of 32).

Santos connected on his final 27 field goals of the season—last missing in a Week 3 win over the Falcons in Atlanta. With a 27-yarder in the season finale against the Packers at Soldier Field, he eclipsed Gould's record of 26 consecutive field goals over two seasons in 2005-06.

Santos' 93.8 percentage topped Gould's mark of 89.7 that he set in 2008 and then matched in 2013, hitting 26-of-29 field-goal tries in both seasons.

Santos was named NFC special teams player of the week after he made field goals of 31, 55 and 31 yards without a miss in a 23-16 win over the Panthers last Oct. 18 in Carolina. His booming 55-yarder with :02 left in the first half was a career-long and gave the Bears a 13-6 halftime lead.

A week earlier, Santos had lifted the Bears to a 20-19 win over the eventual Super Bowl-champion Buccaneers by drilling a 38-yard field goal with 1:13 remaining in a Thursday night game at Soldier Field.

Santos was named NFC special teams player of the month for December. In four games, he made nine field goals without a miss, helping the Bears register three straight wins over the Texans, Vikings and Jaguars to put them in position to earn a wild card berth in the playoffs.

Santos excelled early in his career, converting 84.8 percent of his field-goal attempts (89 of 105) during his first four NFL seasons with the Chiefs from 2014-17. But after aggravating a groin injury in a Week 3 win in 2017, he was placed on injured reserve and then released by Kansas City.

Santos signed with the Bears later that season. He appeared in two games, making 1 of 2 field-goal tries, but he hurt his groin again and landed on injured reserve. He kicked for the Rams and Buccaneers in 2018 and the Titans in 2019 before rejoining the Bears in 2020.

With Eddy Piñeiro sidelined by a groin injury last summer, Santos was promoted from the practice squad to the active roster the day before the season opener against the Lions in Detroit. Santos made the most of his opportunity, producing arguably the best season by a kicker in Bears history.

The two teammates that Santos works closest with also re-signed with the Bears during the offseason, holder Pat O'Donnell and long-snapper Patrick Scales.

With the departure of cornerback Kyle Fuller and tackle Charles Leno Jr. this offseason, O'Donnell became the longest tenured player on the Bears roster. The veteran punter arrived in 2014 as a sixth-round draft pick from Miami and has appeared in 111 of a possible 112 games, missing one contest in 2015. O'Donnell holds all-time franchise records with a 45.0-yard gross average and a 39.7-yard net average, and his 181 punts inside-the-20 rank second in team history.

Last season his 45.7-yard gross average was the second highest of his career, and he matched a career high with 28 punts inside-the-20, tying for the third most in the NFL.

Scales, meanwhile, returns to the Bears for a sixth season. He served as the team's long-snapper in the final five contests in 2015 and all 16 contests in 2016 before missing the entire 2017 season with a torn ACL he sustained in the third preseason game. Scales has since returned to play in all 16 games each of the past three seasons.

Before joining the Bears, Scales appeared in two regular-season games and two playoff contests with the Ravens in 2014. He entered the NFL in 2011 with Baltimore as an undrafted free agent from Utah State and has also spent time with the Dolphins, Jets and Buccaneers.

While the Bears possess continuity with their three-man field-goal operation, they'll have a new kickoff returner in 2021. There are several candidates to replace Cordarrelle Patterson, who held the job the last two seasons. 

Players on the Bears roster who have returned kickoffs in the NFL include returnees Tarik Cohen and Anthony Miller and free-agent acquisitions Damiere Byrd, Marquise Goodwin and Damien Williams. Among the five, Byrd boasts the highest average (25.2 yards) and the only touchdown, a 103-yarder in 2017 when he played for the Panthers. 

Three Bears returned kickoffs in college: second-year running back Artavis Pierce and rookie sixth-round picks Khalil Herbert and Dazz Newsome. 

Cohen has served as the Bears' primary punt returner since he arrived in 2017 as a fourth-round pick from North Carolina A&T, earning an invitation to the Pro Bowl in 2018. But he's rebounding from a torn ACL he suffered while fielding a punt last year in a Week 3 win in Atlanta. 

Other Bears players who have returned punts include Miller, Byrd and Newsome.