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Bears 2023 position preview: Special teams

Bears punter Trenton Gill, long-snapper Patrick Scales and kicker Cairo Santos
Bears punter Trenton Gill, long-snapper Patrick Scales and kicker Cairo Santos

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

The Bears' special teams feature the most accurate field-goal kicker in franchise history and the longest tenured player on their roster.

Cairo Santos has connected on 89.7 percent of his field-goal attempts (78 of 87) in four seasons with the Bears, besting Robbie Gould's 85.4 percent (276 of 323). Santos made 1 of 2 in two games in 2017, 30 of 32 in 2020, 26 of 30 in 2021 and 21 of 23 last year.

Santos will once again work with long-snapper Patrick Scales, who remains the longest tenured Bears player, having appeared in 103 games over seven seasons.

Scales served as the team's long-snapper in the final five contests in 2015 and all 16 games in 2016 before missing the entire 2017 season with a torn ACL he sustained in the third preseason game. He has since returned to play in all 82 contests the past five seasons. He has recorded 14 special-teams tackles, including a career-high four stops each of the past two years.

Undrafted out of Utah State in 2011, Scales was cut five times by four different teams over three years before finally playing in his first NFL regular-season game with the Ravens Dec. 21, 2014.

Punter Trenton Gill returns for a second season. The 2022 seventh-round pick from North Carolina State had a strong rookie year, posting a gross average of 46.0 yards and a 40.3-yard net average that was the third best in Bears history.

Unlike last summer, the Bears will have a second kicker and punter in training camp in rookie Andre Szmyt and first-year pro Ryan Anderson, respectively.

"Competition brings the best in everybody," said special teams coordinator Richard Hightower. "If you're a pro at what you do, it really shouldn't change anything because you should be working like a pro every day. You should be competing against yourself. That's what I tell them."

Szmyt was born at Lake Forest Hospital and grew up just down the road from Halas Hall in Vernon Hills. He is Syracuse's all-time leader in points (454), field goals (85), extra points (199) and field-goal percentage (81.0). He was signed after participating in the Bears' pro day for local prospects.

Four players who returned kicks last year are back with the Bears. Velus Jones Jr. averaged 27.6 yards on 22 kickoffs and 7.0 yards on five punt returns; Dante Pettis averaged 9.1 yards on 18 punt returns; Khalil Herbert averaged 29.2 yards on five kickoff returns; and Trestan Ebner averaged 22.6 yards on 10 kickoff returns.

Also returning is cornerback Josh Blackwell, who emerged as a special teams standout last year as a rookie. He produced a team-leading 11 tackles, with Hightower saying that Blackwell played at a Pro Bowl level.

The Bears added key special teams contributors in free agency with the signings of running back Travis Homer and linebacker Dylan Cole.

As a Seahawks rookie in 2019, Homer took a direct snap on a fake punt against the Vikings and picked up 29 yards and a first down. In Week 8 of 2021, he recovered an onside kick and returned it 44 yards for a TD versus the Jaguars. Five weeks later, his 73-yard TD run on a fake punt against the 49ers earned him NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors.

Fourth-round draft pick Roschon Johnson, a running back from Texas, is also expected to be a valuable performer on special teams.

"What he has shown me since he got into the building is, basically, he validated what we thought and what we already knew," Hightower said. "He's a strong, powerful player, and he's just confirmed that that was a really good selection."