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Bears training camp preview: Special teams


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

After a solid debut season in 2019, expectations are high for kicker Eddy Piñeiro as he enters his second year with the Bears.

Last season Piñeiro made 82.1 percent of his field-goal attempts (23 of 28) and 93.1 percent of his extra-point tries (27 of 29). He also recorded touchbacks on 50 percent of his kickoffs (26 of 52).

After opening the season by making 9-of-10 field-goal attempts in the first six games, Piñeiro missed 4-of-7 tries over a four-game stretch before rebounding to hit his final 11 attempts over the last six contests.

Piñeiro was acquired last May in a trade with the Raiders in exchange for a conditional seventh-round draft pick. He won a competition for the job with Elliott Fry in training camp and the first couple weeks of the preseason after the Bears had evaluated several other kickers in their rookie minicamp.

A year later, Piñeiro will be challenged by Ramiz Ahmed, who signed with the Bears April 17. Ahmed last kicked competitively at the University of Nevada in 2018, when he made 15-of-20 field-goal attempts (75.0 percent). After not playing football while attending UNLV and Arizona State, he made the Wolf Pack team as a kickoff specialist in 2017 following a tryout.

"Eddy did a lot of good things last year and there's things we wish that he would have done better," special-teams coordinator Chris Tabor said in June. "That's any player. But there's always going to be competition. Eddy's not comfortable; he's still chasing it, and we have a lot of confidence in him. But at the end of the day, you've got to perform and he understands that, so I think he'll be fine."

Ahmed worked out for Tabor last spring and made a positive impression. He noted at the time that Ahmed was a prospect the Bears should continue to track.

Ahmed was signed by the Bears after another strong performance at a free-agent camp run by former NFL special-teams coach Gary Zauner in Arizona March 8-10.

"I saw [Ahmed] there and he was really striking the ball really well," Tabor said. "You could tell he cleaned some things up technically from the last spring. So I actually saw some growth and just thought this is a guy who deserves an opportunity. We're always going to have a couple of guys in camp, so I don't think that's anything off the charts on that deal. But he struck the ball well, and we're going to give him a shot."

Punter Pat O'Donnell returns for a seventh season with the Bears. He is the franchise's all-time leading punter with a 44.9-yard career average and also owns team single-season records for gross average (47.0 in 2017) and net average (40.7 in 2019).

O'Donnell has appeared in 95 of a possible 96 games since he was selected by the Bears in the sixth round of the 2014 draft out of Miami, missing one contest in 2015. During his career, he has placed 153 punts inside-the-20 with 27 touchbacks. Last year he averaged 44.8 yards on 80 punts and placed 26 inside-the-20 with just two touchbacks.

O'Donnell is one of only four players remaining on the Bears roster who were acquired before Ryan Pace became general manager in 2015. The others are left tackle Charles Leno Jr., cornerback Kyle Fuller and safety Sherrick McManis.

Long-snapper Patrick Scales also returns for a fifth season with the Bears. He appeared in the final five games 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 returned to play in all 16 games in both 2018 and 2019.

The Bears boast two of the NFL's top return specialists in kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson and punt returner Tarik Cohen.

In his first season with the Bears last year, Patterson was named first-team All-Pro by Associated Press, Sporting News and the Pro Football Writers of America after ranking second in the NFL with a 29.5-yard average on 28 kickoff returns, including a 102-yard touchdown against the Saints, and leading the league with 825 kick-return yards.

Patterson ranks second all-time in the NFL with a 29.9-yard kickoff return average behind Bears Hall of Famer Gale Sayers (30.6) and his seven touchdowns are the third most in NFL history, one behind co-leaders Leon Washington and Josh Cribbs.

Patterson was also named to the Pro Bowl as a special-teams player last season, earning the honor not only for his performance as a kickoff returner but as a gunner on the punt-coverage team.

Cohen was voted to the Pro Bowl in 2018 after leading the NFL with 33 punt returns and 411 punt-return yards and ranking fifth among qualified returners with a 12.5-yard average. Last year he was chosen as a Pro Bowl alternate after again finishing fifth with a 9.2-yard average.

Top players on the return and coverage units back with the Bears in 2020 include McManis, DeAndre Houston-Carson, Deon Bush, Josh Woods, Joel Iyiegbuniwe and Isaiah Irving.

One key free-agent acquisition who's expected to become a core special-teams contributor is outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo. The eighth-year pro played for Tabor with the Browns from 2013-15 when the Bears special-teams coordinator held the same position in Cleveland.

"Ming is a guy who I'm very familiar with," Tabor said. "He was a four-phase, really good special-teams player for us [in Cleveland]. He's very personable, very team-oriented, and just a great guy. He's a guy who can play a lot of different roles for us. The guy can run.

"He made a lot of plays for me. And if he didn't make the tackle, he was actually one of the lead reasons why somebody else made the tackle. So [he's a] very active player. I'm excited that he's here because he's going to fit great in the room and into our culture. And he's a player who's going to add value to the Chicago Bears."