As the NFL draft nears — it takes place May 8-10 — we're taking an 11-day, position-by-position look at what's out there and what the Bears need.
Robbie Gould signed a four-year, $15 million extension shortly before last season's finale, giving the Bears plenty of long-term security at kicker. But punter Adam Podlesh was cut in early March. Return legend Devin Hester's contract expired shortly after, and he's now with the Falcons. Long snapper Patrick Mannelly, a mainstay since 1998, still hasn't committed to returning in 2014 after winter hip surgery. That leaves special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis to reshuffle his plans and deliver input on coveted prospects who could help fill a few important holes.
Level of draft need: High, Moderate, LOW
At present, punters Drew Butler and Tress Way are lined up for the first auditions for Podlesh's old job. Long snapper Chad Rempel was signed out from the CFL in early April as a backup plan if Mannelly doesn't return. And the Bears' return options could include receivers Chris Williams and Domenik Hixon. That's not to say the Bears won't find a position player in the draft with return potential. But with so many other roster needs, prioritizing a specialist in the draft seems unlikely.
Kirby Van Der Kamp, Iowa State punter
6-4, 202 pounds
Worth a look: Van Der Kamp checks off several of the boxes for intangibles as a competitive, intelligent, driven specialist. Just as importantly, he's an accomplished directional kicker, which certainly should score points with DeCamillis. Last season, Van Der Kamp's average of 41.6 yards per punt wasn't terrific. But he did have 17 kicks of at least 50 yards and had 27 punts downed inside the 20.
Stay away: Van Der Kamp averaged 45.2 yards per punt as a freshman, then saw his average dip over his final three seasons. Finding reasons for that decline is a must for whatever teams might be interested.
Pat O'Donnell, Miami punter
6-4, 220 pounds
Worth a look: Only 22 punters have been drafted over the last decade, most with better credentials than O'Donnell. But as a late pick or undrafted free agent, O'Donnell has value. In his one season at Miami, after transferring from Cincinnati, he set a single-season school record, averaging 47.1 yards per punt. He also has experience as a holder on PATs and field goals, an opening the Bears have after Podlesh's departure.
Stay away: Unlike Van Der Kamp, O'Donnell's directional skills are inconsistent. There also are questions about his ability to flourish in pressure situations.
De'Anthony Thomas, Oregon return specialist
5-9, 174 pounds
Worth a look: His 40-yard dash time of 4.50 seconds at the combine was a surprise and a disappointment. But Thomas rallied at his pro day to post 40 times of 4.37 and 4.34 seconds, confirming his elite speed and enhancing his potential value as a kickoff and punt return threat. Thomas has exciting quickness and cut-back ability and can double as a change-of-pace back, which could intrigue the Bears as they look for depth behind Matt Forte.
Stay away: He lacks NFL-caliber size and strength, leading some to question just how durable he would be at the next level. Thomas might also require too much of a specialty role on offense to be worth using a Day 2 draft pick.
Marcus Heit, Kansas State long snapper
6-3, 258 pounds
Worth a look: One of two long snappers invited to the NFL combine in February, Heit was ultra-reliable throughout his college career. He will almost certainly be available as an undrafted free agent, requiring little investment to test his skills.
Stay away: Questions persist about Heit's athleticism and abilities in coverage.
Dri Archer, Kent State return specialist
5-8, 173 pounds
Worth a look: Need evidence that Archer could be an explosive return man from day one in the NFL? Pull up the YouTube clips of his 40 at the combine with the Kent State speedster officially clocking in at 4.26 seconds, just .02 seconds off the combine record set by Chris Johnson in 2008. Archer had four kickoff return touchdowns in college and has great vision to enhance his speed. He's also versatile on offense, able to be used creatively out of the backfield or as a slot receiver.
Stay away: Archer was slowed by an ankle injury last season and may not have the size to survive the NFL's poundings. Offensively, he's not proven in pass protection either, which seems to be a requirement to earn trust and opportunity in coach Marc Trestman's offense.
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