Special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis has plenty of options to consider in deciding who will succeed Devin Hester as the Bears' primary return specialist this season.
The contenders come in all shapes and sizes.
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Eric Weems, a 5-foot-9, 195-pound eighth-year veteran, signed with the Bears as an unrestricted free agent before the 2012 season. In the previous two seasons with the Bears, he was used infrequently as a backup returner, but he's been one of the leading tacklers on kick-coverage units. Weems returned kickoffs and punts with the Atlanta Falcons from 2007-11 and went to the Pro Bowl after the 2010 season when he returned a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns.
Weems is competing with 5-foot-8, 175-pound first-year player Chris Williams and veterans Armanti Edwards (5-11, 190) and Michael Spurlock (5-11, 210).
All four players are wide receivers, but not one of them has caught many passes in the NFL, and they aren't expected to do so with the Bears. Their best chance to earn a spot on the 53-man roster will be on special teams, and the competition among them to fill the void left by Hester's departure should be one of the more interesting during training camp.
"It's good to have the competition, but it is a challenge, no question, to have that many guys," DeCamillis said after Wednesday's minicamp practice inside the Walter Payton Center. "We have a lot of experience back there. I think there's a lot of talent, and that's really what you want when you're evaluating."
The 31-year-old Spurlock is entering his eighth season and playing for his eighth NFL team. He has returned 2 punts and 3 kickoffs for touchdowns while playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Arizona Cardinals, Dallas Cowboys, Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars, San Diego Chargers and San Francisco 49ers.
In 2012, Spurlock averaged 17.1 yards and scored 1 punt return TD and averaged 25.7 yards and scored another TD on a kickoff return for the Chargers.
Edwards has just 6 punt returns in the previous two years with the Carolina Panthers and Cleveland Browns, but one went for 69 yards.
Williams was signed by the Bears for the final game last season and has spent time on the Browns' and New Orleans Saints' practice squads. With the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 2011, he was named the Canadian Football League's most outstanding rookie, as he led the team with 1,064 receiving yards. He had 3 return touchdowns at New Mexico State.
It's still way too early for DeCamillis to handicap the four-horse race or to even pick a front-runner, but he knows exactly what he wants to evaluate in training camp next month.
"The first thing is returner mechanics," DeCamillis said. "You want a guy who can make all the catches. You want a solid punt-return guy that can square up his body and make sure he's makes the right decisions because that's really the biggest part of being a returner is making the right decision.
"And then the second thing is the talent with the ball in his hands. If you can identify a guy that can make plays in open space, that's really what you're looking for. And it happens in different ways. Devin had great speed, that's why he was good. And there have been other guys that have excellent vision."
Once the winners are determined, then it's time for DeCamillis to personalize the return game.
"You just have to find what that guy is good at," he said, "and try to tailor the scheme towards him."
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