Paul Edinger will enter his 4th season as the Chicago Bears' place-kicker this fall. He was hardly noticed when he was selected in the 6th round of the draft out of Michigan State. That changed quickly when camp opened, as soon as people saw his field goal kicking style. Edinger has faced competition and doubts through 3 training camps. He's come out on top in every case. This past offseason, Edinger was a restricted free agent, and tendered a low offer from the Bears. The Vikings came calling with a 5-year deal with a signing bonus, to sign him away from the Bears. The offer was matched. This offers Edinger the closest thing he's had to job security since he became a professional.
Through 3 seasons, Edinger has connected on 80.2 percent of his field goals. What's more amazing is that the 5'8" 170 pound kicker has made 73.9 percent of his kicks from 40 yards or more. Additionally, he's played for the Bears, which means the home games are in outdoor stadiums, where weather is a varying factor. Edinger's critics complain that his kickoffs are not very deep. He's certainly below the league average for depth, but he does get good loft and placement, and his kicks are rarely returned for huge chunks of yardage.
Punter Brad Maynard will begin his third season as a Bear this fall. Maynard had a strong first season as a Bear in 2001, with a 37.0-yard net punting average and 36 kicks inside the 20. He had an up and down 2002, but overall was above average. His net average was actually slightly higher than in 2001, but he only got 26 kicks down inside the 20, which was a departure of over 10 percent from his previous season. He has only had 2 kicks blocked in his career, and none of them since he became a Bear. Maynard's stability and consistency are especially important if the Bears are to continue being conservative on offense, and stress field position.
In the return game, the departure of running back Leon Johnson leaves a void on both kicks and punts. Although unspectacular, the Bears were right in the middle of the league in terms of average kickoff return and punt return, ranking 18th in both. Ahmad Merritt took over much of the return duties late in the season, and he appeared more explosive on kickoffs, but was a deficit on punts. Merritt has not shown very good hands, or the ability to hang onto the football as of yet. Not many teams show great patience with those traits, especially in someone who wasn't a high draft pick.
From a coverage standpoint, the Bears have done a good job of keeping opposing teams from getting great starting field position. Long snapper Patrick Mannelly has solidified himself as not only one of the best snappers in the game, but also as a standout in punt coverage. Key players covering kicks also included Mike Green and Bobbie Howard. Both are expected to be back next year, possibly in starting roles. One special teams standout not expected back is safety Larry Whigham. Whigham is a former Pro Bowl special teamer. Unfortunately, he hasn't provided the kind of depth at safety the Bears need to merit keeping him on the roster.
Backups handle much of the front line positions in both coverage and return teams. Good athletic depth usually translates into good special teams. The Bears have reasonably solid depth on the offensive and defensive line, but are shallow at running back and linebacker, athletic positions called upon to do a lot on special teams. Look for some things to change on the roster in the way of hard decisions about the offensive and defensive line, as well as additions to depth at both linebacker and running back to have a trickle down effect on the special teams units.
SPECIAL TEAMS SUMMARY
INJURY IMPACT: None (1): All the major players on special teams are in good shape going into the 2003 campaign. The only injury bearing any impact would be the injury to tight end Dustin Lyman on coverage.
CONTRACT IMPACT: Low (2): Maynard has 3 seasons left on a 5-year deal. Edinger is beginning a new 5-year contract. Patrick Mannelly is also signed through 2005 (like Maynard). None of the contracts are for amounts that put a heavy or unreasonable burden on the salary cap.
SUMMARY OF NEED: Medium (7): The Bears will need to address the return game. If they plan to play a field position-dominated game, they'll need to have a weapon in the return game to turn to.
RESOURCES: Kickoff and punt return specialists are seldom drafted for this purpose alone. Usually it's a complimentary skill for a versatile player taken in the later rounds. This often comes from a wide receiver, defensive back, or running back.
SUSPECTS: The Bears could use a speed receiver or third down running back, as well as a depth player in the defensive backfield. There should be numerous players that fit this bill throughout the draft. Apart from those mentioned in the previous reviews, candidates include LSU running back Domanick Davis, Central Florida wide receiver Doug Gabriel, USC defensive back Darrell Rideaux, and Grand Valley State wide receiver David Kircus.