A part of the Chicago Bears’ struggles – beyond an offense that didn’t sustain enough scoring drives, a defense that struggled with consistency, and a bench whose lack of depth was exposed by injuries – was a special teams unit that rated among the worst in the league (well that sure wasn’t fun to type).
Rick Gosselin’s annual special teams rankings provides insight into a group that is typically quite hard to grade. And, as you would expect, the Bears’ marks were far from great. They were ranked as the league’s worst in two categories (punt coverage and opponent’s field goal percentage) and came in with the sixth lowest composite score among the NFL’s 32 teams. In addition, and as a final kicker, the Bears didn’t fare too well in kickoff and punt return average (18th and 19th respectively in 2016) either.
But perhaps help is on the way.
Fourth-round pick Tarik Cohen, for one example, is a rookie in a crowded running back room headlined by Pro Bowler Jordan Howard. And while sitting on the depth chart behind Howard, Jeremy Langford, Ka’Deem Carey, and Benny Cunningham might seem like a tall task for the 5-foot-6 Cohen, the road is paved for him to contribute as a return specialist almost immediately … and special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers likes what he sees already.
“You know, he’s fast. He’s got verified speed. He’s got quickness,” Rodgers said of Cohen in Kevin Fishbain’s Pro Football Weekly notebook. “Size-wise, he’s short, but he’s not thin. He’s a little bit thicker. For a shorter guy, he’s got big hands and that will help. Some guys who are shorter have smaller hands, smaller arms, things like that. So there’s not as much surface space for a guy to catch. We like his athletic traits.”
Cohen produced the third fastest 40-yard dash time among running backs at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis and made highlight reel runs feel like a common occurrence at North Carolina A&T. If you’re not familiar, you should get to know this potential playmaker.
And then there is Eddie Jackson, who started petitioning Alabama head coach Nick Saban to return punts as early as freshman year. That said, he won’t have to do nearly as much lobbying with his new team, as Rodgers sees an immediate fit for the team’s other 2017 fourth-round pick.
In his weekend notebook, the Chicago Tribune’s Dan Wiederer caught up with Rodgers, who offered up his thoughts on Jackson’s potential impact at the position.
“He’s a little bit inexperienced, but his production is off the charts,” Rodgers said. “He’s got good hands. He’s bigger for a punt returner. But he has a little bit of a unique skill set digging through it.… He’s got a history of making plays and hopefully he can contribute in that area.”
All signs point to Jackson taking it slow during camp to start his professional career, which is wise considering the leg injuries that helped sink his draft stock (resulting in his fourth round availability in the first place). Jackson’s inexperience might hold him back early, but he has notable skills, traits, and a reputation for for making big plays.
He might not be at the top of the safety depth chart (with free agent Quintin Demps and returning starter Adrian Amos ahead of Jackson at two positions), but he could quickly become a significant contributor via special teams.