It doesn’t make headlines like quarterback trades and tight end travails, but the Bears’ special teams underwent big changes in free agency and could be poised to build on its modest but much-needed gains last season.
In safety Jordan Lucas and linebacker Barkevious Mingo, the Bears this week signed two proven plus performers in the third phase. They’ve also re-signed long snapper Patrick Scales and safety Deon Bush, and reportedly brought back safety DeAndre Houston-Carson. Their busiest (linebacker Joel Iyiegbuniwe) and best (returner Cordarrelle Patterson) special-teamers are entrenched, and a newcomer, such as Artie Burns, and still-unknown Devante Bond also could be ticketed for big kicking-game roles.
However, the Bears let homegrown special teams demon Nick Kwiatkoski leave in free agency, same as fellow linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis, and that’s before we get to their most notable free agent who remains unsigned – Sherrick McManis.
Lest we forget, the Bears added explosive special teams depth last season, including Patterson and Pierre-Louis, but it wasn’t until they learned from their early-season mistake of taking McManis’ helmet that Chris Tabor’s group started to fully click. In the two games when McManis was a healthy scratch, Weeks 2-3, his replacement, Buster Skrine, jumped offside on a missed PAT that gifted Denver two points and nearly a win, and Chicago ceded a season-high 105 kickoff return yards in Washington.
McManis’ return to the field in Week 4 coincided with the Bears’ best win of the season, vs. the Vikings, and over the next two games, he made the critical, near-game-turning block with remarkable hustle on Tarik Cohen’s punt return in London vs. the Raiders, after a goal-line forced fumble that took seven points off the board, and delivered another critical assist on Cordarrelle Patterson’s kickoff return score vs. the Saints.
In the game when McManis suffered a season-ending groin injury vs. the Giants, the Bears allowed their second-highest kickoff return total of 2019. It was then one step forward and two steps back, with Patterson breaking loose in Detroit to open Week 13 – McManis’ first time being inactive since Week 3 – before the Packers’ previously left-for-dead return game stung Chicago on the frozen tundra 2 weeks later in its best showing of the season.
Indeed, this isn’t simply a case of absence making the heart grow fonder; McManis’ absence clearly had an adverse effect, whereas his return made a marked if not immediate difference last season.
Now comes the part where we remind everyone that McManis is the Bears’ longest-tenured player, which means no team since Lovie Smith’s penultimate group in Chicago in 2011 knows what it’s like to weather a full season without the soft-spoken and versatile Northwestern product. Are we advising Ryan Pace allows sentiment to factor in his decision? Although we think McManis deserves a better Bears send-off than his trip to IR to end last season or giving up the final touchdown in the wild-card defeat 2 years ago, and sentiment certainly appeared to be in play with the Jimmy Graham signing and Nick Foles trade, absolutely not.
Alas, it shouldn’t be required in the decision on McManis, who has proven his worth repeatedly to three separate Bears regimes. And if the current one seemingly is gravitating toward 30-somethings in its all-in-on-2020 free-agent approach, wouldn’t it make sense to return the 32-year-old leader of the Bears’ special teams for most of the past decade, whose most recent absence obviously hurt the unit?