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Bears 2022 position preview: Special teams

Bears kicker Cairo Santos
Bears kicker Cairo Santos

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

The Bears' special teams are led by Cairo Santos, who has eclipsed Robbie Gould as the most accurate kicker in franchise history.

Santos has made 89.1 percent of his field-goal attempts (57 of 64). He connected on 1 of 2 in two games with the Bears in 2017, 30 of 32 in 2020 and 26 of 30 in 2021. Over the last two years, Santos converted 40 straight field goals, a team record and tied for the third longest streak in NFL history. Gould made 85.4 percent of his field goals (276 of 323) during 11 seasons with the Bears from 2005-15.

Santos has resurrected his career in Chicago. He converted 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.

Santos signed with the Bears later that season. He appeared in two games, 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.

Santos will once again work with long-snapper Patrick Scales, who returns to the Bears for a seventh 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 every game each of the past four 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.

The Bears will have a new punter this season. They allowed veteran Patrick O'Donnell to leave via free agency and selected Trenton Gill in the seventh round of the draft out of North Carolina State.

Gill averaged 45.8 yards on 173 punts over the last three seasons. In 2019, he ranked third in the FBS with a school-record 47.6-yard average on 56 punts. Last year the 6-4, 220-pounder was named first-team all-ACC after averaging 45.1 yards on 65 punts. Gill was also a kickoff specialist for three years, producing 114 touchbacks on 198 kickoffs.

Three players who returned punts and kickoffs for the Bears are back this season. Khalil Herbert averaged 24.1 yards on 27 kickoff returns, while Dazz Newsome averaged 12.5 yards on six punt returns and Nsimba Webster averaged 3.3 yards on four punt returns.

The Bears added two explosive return specialists in the draft, choosing Tennessee receiver Velus Jones Jr. in the third round and Baylor running back Trestan Ebner in the sixth.

Last season at Tennessee, Jones was named SEC Co-Special Teams Player of the Year after averaging 27.3 yards with one touchdown on 23 kickoff returns and 15.1 yards on 18 punt returns. In 61 career college games over six seasons, the 6-foot, 200-pounder averaged 24.4 yards with two TDs on 122 kickoff returns.

"The whole organization is excited about adding a guy like that," special teams coordinator Richard Hightower said during the offseason. "We like him as a person and we like his energy, we like his speed, we like his toughness, we like his athleticism, and we like what he can do. What he has the opportunity to do is compete here and see if he can make those things translate that he did in college to the pro level, and we definitely believe that he can."

Last year at Baylor, Ebner was voted Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Year and first-team All-Big 12 as a return specialist and all-purpose player after averaging 22.2 yards with one TD on 23 kickoff returns and 8.1 yards on 19 punt returns. In five seasons, the 5-11, 206-pounder averaged 25.3 yards with three touchdowns on 47 kickoff returns and 6.8 yards with one TD on 28 punt returns.

"He's fast, he's really quick-twitch," Hightower said. "He covers the ball up well. He protects the ball well, which is good for a young player. When he's running with it, he protects it well. You can see that even in the offensive drills when I'm watching on the side sometimes. He's got speed and explosiveness and he's eager."