With the addition of unrestricted free agents Eric Weems and Devin Thomas, the Bears have enough quality kickoff returners to allow Devin Hester to focus on punt returns and wide receiver. But he's not being phased out on kickoffs.
"He's still our No. 1 kickoff returner," special teams coordinator Dave Toub said. "So, when we need a big one, Devin is going to be in there. But we have the luxury of having Eric Weems, so there will be times we have them both back there and we'll kind of trick people with exactly who is getting the ball. We'll kind of move one guy up late. We'll also try to make them kick it away from Devin. We'll make them get the ball to Weems at times.
"Then there will be times just Weems will be back there with a fullback. So he's definitely a luxury for us. But it's a luxury that, I mean, this guy can take it to the house. He's scored touchdowns. He went to the Pro Bowl before. So we're fortunate to have him."
The 5-foot-9, 195-pound Weems is also outstanding in kick coverage.
Even though Hester led the NFL last season with a 16.2-yard punt-return average, there were a number of times when he failed to field catchable punts, which resulted in lost yardage.
"Actually, we've been working on him catching the really short punts, going up and getting those instead of letting them drop," Toub said. "So that's been our emphasis during the OTAs and minicamp. (Wide receivers coach) Darryl Drake has been down there. He asked me to work with him a little bit. He's really done a good job. Devin has had a great camp, not only as a wide receiver but as a returner for us, too."
The Bears finished 28th in passing yards allowed last season, permitting an average of 254.1 yards per game, more than all but four teams in the league. Still, coach Lovie Smith took exception to an inference that the secondary struggled in 2011.
"I don't see it like that," he said. "A few games, maybe you have a little bit of trouble with the pass. I think we played the pass fairly well."
Even as a rookie without the benefit of an off-season last year, third-round pick Chris Conte started nine games at safety.
He's far more comfortable now with a year in the system.
"It's crazy," he said. "I've been living out here for a year. I know this place. Coming to Bourbonnais (last July) I had never even seen Illinois before. But it was a fun experience. It's just nice being able to feel much more comfortable, knowing the guys, knowing what to expect."
Just six months removed from surgery to repair a torn ACL, long-snapper Patrick Mannelly appears way ahead of schedule as he prepares for his 15th NFL season.
"It's real good to see him back," special teams coordinator Dave Toub said. "He got back the last part of OTAs. We've had him the whole minicamp. He looks real good. He's running down on punts and protecting. He's in all the team drills."
Room for improvement:
With more talent and depth at the quarterback position (Jay Cutler, Jason Campbell and Josh McCown) than at any time in recent memory, coach Lovie Smith expects a more productive offense than last year's group, which was 17th in scoring.
"I feel like we're going to be able to put more points on the board, which we will have to do," Smith said. "The team that led the league (the Packers) averaged 35 points a game last year, and we were about at 22. We have to improve on that."
Thinning the ranks:
Quarterback Nathan Enderle, the Bears' fifth-round (160th overall) in 2011, was waived Thursday, the final day of minicamp and the final team activity until training camp kicks off in late July. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound project of former offensive coordinator Mike Martz was on the active roster during the 2011 regular season but did not appear in a game.
Veteran guard Mansfield Wrotto was also waived.