It’s easy to overlook special teams, but the Bears can’t afford to do that after a disappointing 2018 season and the dilemmas they must solve before next season.
Obviously there’s the Cody Parkey situation. He’s owed $3.5 million next year whether he plays for the Bears or not, and “not” is the most likely scenario. Parkey was guaranteed $9 million on the four-year, $15-million deal he signed with the Bears as an unrestricted free agent. It was by far the worst decision G.M. Ryan Pace made in a year when just about everything else he touched turned to gold. But bringing Parkey back after he connected on just 23 of 30 FG attempts, in addition to the 43-yard miss that cost the Bears a playoff game, would be throwing good money after bad.
Only two NFL kickers had lower FG percentages than Parkey’s 76.7, the Vikings’ Dan Bailey (75.0) and the Steelers’ Chris Boswell (65.0), and he missed three of 45 extra-point attempts. The Bears have already taken a step to move on from Parkey, signing Redford Jones, who did not play in the league last year after going undrafted out of Tulsa, where he made 74.6 percent of his career FG tries and 98.3 of his extra points.
“That position is an emphasis for us,” Pace said before Jones was signed. “We understand we need to get better; get more production out of that position. Matt (Nagy) talks about it all the time. There’s so much parity in our league, so many close games; the kicker position is critical. We know we need to get better there and it’ll be an area of focus.”
So the Bears probably aren’t finished tinkering with the position, which they could revisit during free agency and/or the draft. But given their financial commitment to Parkey, it’s unlikely the Bears would spend big on a free-agent kicker.
P Pat O’Donnell tied his modest career-best single-season net average of 39.7 yards and had the highest percentage of punts downed inside the 20-yard line (45.2) in his five-year career. His most significant statistic was allowing just 150 return yards, less than a third of the 512 yards the Bears permitted in 2017, although a fair share of that improvement goes to the coverage team. O’Donnell is due to become an unrestricted free agent, and he’s rarely demonstrated that he’s the type of player to command top dollar.
CB Sherrick McManis, S DeAndre Houston-Carson and ILBs Joel Iyiegbuniwe and Nick Kwiatkoski formed the core of the coverage teams. Houston-Carson and LS Patrick Scales are both restricted free agents.
Tarik Cohen gave the Bears a dangerous punt-return threat, finishing fourth in the NFL with a 12.5-yard average. But the Bears chose not to expose him to excess wear and tear on kickoffs, so that aspect of the return game suffered. The Bears finished last in the league with a 19.1-yard average, nearly six yards less than the 24.9 yards they allowed on kickoff returns, which was 28th in the league. Benny Cunningham, Taquan Mizzell and Anthony Miller were all used on kickoffs, and none did much to excite.
Most improved: O’Donnell.
Best play: In Week Three, before any of his missed kicks had hit any uprights, Parkey connected from 43 yards out with 4:31 remaining to give the Bears their first and only lead of the game in a 16-14 victory over the Cardinals in Arizona.
Key stat: Including the postseason, six of Parkey’s 11 missed kicks hit one of the uprights, including the missed field goal against the Eagles in the playoffs, which also hit the crossbar.
Room for improvement: Kickoff returns and coverage both need to get better, but it’s the kicking game that demands immediate attention.