Returning kicks — and punts — crucial to Bears WR Velus Jones’ future

Just a year removed from being picked in the third round, Velus Jones is fighting to keep his spot in a much-improved Bears receivers room.

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Bears wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. fumbles a punt last season during a game against the Commanders.

Bears wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. fumbles a punt last season during a game against the Commanders.

Nam Y. Huh/AP

Just a year removed from being picked in the third round, Velus Jones is fighting to keep his spot in a much-improved Bears receivers room.

The key might have nothing to do with receiving at all.

Coach Matt Eberflus said after the Bears’ first training-camp practice Wednesday that special teams will be important to his future.

The Bears expect him to return kicks and punts. Last year, he mostly did the former.

Jones returned 22 kicks for 607 yards, but he was limited to only five punt returns after making critical mistakes. Two of those five returns resulted in fumbles at the worst possible time: in the fourth quarter of games against the Giants and Commanders that the Bears ultimately lost. Jones lost his punt-return job to Dante Pettis, who had 18 returns.

“The first thing that stands out to me is his returns, the punt returns and kick returns — he’s really been consistent with that, much better,” Eberflus said. “He’s really worked his tail off with that.”

Jones’ offensive contributions will be important, but perhaps secondary. After mentioning his return skills, Eberflus also talked about “the ability to utilize him as a guy back there with the jet sweeps, the gadget plays and also just being a receiver.”

But special teams will dictate his value.

“Anytime you can do that, you can solidify a spot,” Eberflus said. “That’s gonna be a good thing for that player.”

Good to go

Eberflus said Pettis, who was put on the non-football injury list Tuesday, should return to practice quickly. He hinted that Pettis was hurt training while away from the facility.

Every player but Pettis participated in at least a portion of practice. Linebacker Jack Sanborn, who spent the offseason recovering from a December ankle injury, and wide receiver Darnell Mooney, who had ankle surgery the same month, were limited as part of a ramp-up plan.

Mooney said he already had planned to have tightrope surgery on his left ankle at the end of the season because of “prior issues” as a pro. He then injured the same ankle in November. Mooney had tightrope surgery — which is used to strengthen the body after high ankle sprains — in addition to having screws put in his ankle to stabilize the break.

This and that

Undrafted rookie wide receiver Aron Cruikshank made the catch of the day, spinning, then diving into the end zone to make a one-handed catch near the front right pylon.

He beat cornerback Macon Clark in the one-on-one drill.

• The Bears closed their first training-camp practice to the public and moved it indoors to the Walter Payton Center because of poor air quality. By the time practice started, lightning and pouring rain had engulfed Lake Forest.

• The Bears signed offensive tackle Aviante Collins, whom they worked out Tuesday, and cut rookie Lorenz Metz, a German tackle who played collegiately at Cincinnati.

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