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Bears turn to rookies for special teams boost in 2016

Marcus Sherels' 65-yard punt return touchdown against the Bears in the Vikings' 23-20 victory at Soldier Field in Week 8 last year was the third kick-return for a score against the Bears in the first half of the season. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

BOURBONNAIS — The Bears made a concerted effort to improve their special teams in the offseason. And while they are a long way from seeing any tangible results, special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers has noticed the potential for upgrades.

“We spent several draft picks in he secondary,” Rodgers said, referring to cornerbacks Deon Bush, Deiondre Hall and DeAndre Houston-Carson. “Those are guys we anticipate making a run for our roster. All those guys run pretty well.”

And as Rodgers noted, free agency could provide a trickle-down affect. “The two inside backers we signed [Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman] obviously are not going to play a huge role on teams,” Rodgers said. “But by those guys becoming starters, a guy like Jonathan Anderson, who played a lot on defense last year, factors in a little bit more.”

Rodgers also mentioned rookie linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, who figures to be behind Trevathan or Freeman on the depth chart, but has a good special teams mentality. Rookie wide receivers Daniel Braverman and Kieren Duncan are getting a shot at the kick return jobs. All in all, it’s likely that youth will play a big role in special teams this season.

The Bears return their top five special-teams tacklers from last season in Sherrick McManis (17), Joshua Bellamy (10), Chris Prosinski (9), Sam Acho (8) and Lamin Barrow (7). But there’s no telling who will be around when the dust settles after the preseason. The Bears figure to have some big decisions to make. Two years ago under Phil Emery, the Bears cut three key special teams standouts — Blake Costanzo, Craig Steltz and Eric Weems — to get younger and more athletic and struggled in 2014, finishing 26th in the Dallas Morning News rankings.

The Bears are looking for improvement after an uneven season under Rodgers last year. The Bears actually were 12th in the special teams rankings. But they allowed three kick-return touchdowns in the first half of the season and made little impact in the return game until late in the season.

There’s a lot of room for improvement. But Rodgers feels he has a head start in Year 2 under John Fox. “Last year we came into this — you don’t know how a guy is in pads,” Rodgers said. “You don’t know how a guy is in the heat of the game [or] how a guy is dealing with some of the injury things that come up. We know more about those guys right now.”

McManis is upbeat about the potential. “I love the feeling out there [on special teams],” he said. “I feel like we have a lot of confidence out there.”

But there’s a long way to go to know for sure.

‘I definitely noticed the upgrade in talent and just the competition,” Prosinski said. “But you have to get in a game and see live bullets to really see [what you’ve got], because it’s a different beast when you’re out there [in a game].”