The Chicago Tribune's Bears beat reporter Brad Biggs wrote an interesting piece in yesterday's edition about wide receiver and kick returner Chris Williams, who was originally signed as an undrafted free agent by the Miami Dolphins out of New Mexico State (4.28 pro day 40-yard dash) in 2009. If, like me, you know next to nothing about the guy, it's well worth a look.
He joined the CFL's Hamilton Tiger-Cats and was voted the CFL's most outstanding rookie in 2011, and the league's special teams player of the year in 2012 - no doubt aided by the record five punt return touchdowns he scored, in addition to 11 as a receiver. See for yourself at CFL.ca. No, really, it exists.
After a legal kerfuffle to get out of his CFL contract for the 2013 season, he ended up on the New Orleans Saints' practice squad... and here's where it gets interesting for Bears fans. According to Brad Biggs,
Williams is someone general manager Phil Emery's front office identified as a replacement before last season ended. The Bears tried multiple times to lure him from the Saints practice squad before finally getting it done Dec. 26, three days before the final game of the season.
Note that that's before Devin Hester's contract expired and the team made the decision to go in a different direction... one that they were already progressing with. Furthermore, Biggs notes that:
The Bears wooed Williams away from the Saints with a $100,000 signing bonus, a financial commitment that is rare for practice squad players.
...and that his base salaries are $495,000 this season (with a $25k roster bonus if he's on the 53-man roster for week 1) and $510,000 in 2015.
That's a little lower than the 3 years, $9 million. $2.5 million signing bonus deal that Hester signed with the Falcons, and quite a bit less than the $4M annual salary that Hester was reportedly after when he hit free agency.
Biggs goes on to talk a little about how the Bears might try to use him on offense as a package player which, if he shows at training camp and in the preseason that he can offer something in that regard, may help him earn that roster bonus. He's already been getting some work in with Brandon Marshall, Jay Cutler et al. in Florida.
He'll be in competition with Eric Weems, who made the 2010 Pro Bowl and was All Pro as a special teamer. Weems has been primarily a gunner as a Bear but was productive as a returner with the Falcons, having averaged 25.6 yards on 113 kickoff returns and 10.6 yards on 77 punt returns during his five years there. He has, however, never topped more than 11 receptions and 90 yards in a season as a receiver.
The third WR/KR type the Bears have on the roster is Josh Bellamy, whom they recently claimed off waivers from Washington. He was an undrafted rookie signed to the Chiefs when Phil Emery was their director of college scouting and has yet to record any offensive stats, though he has returned five kickoffs for 105 yards.
Edit: Forgot about Domenik Hixon, who's also had a history of being able to return kickoffs and punts; that makes four WR/KR types on the offseason roster.
The Bears are definitely keeping Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Marquess Wilson, and likely need two, possibly three more WRs on the roster who can play special teams. At this stage Bellamy is probably more of a camp body, but Phil preaches competition and must have liked him from their mutual time with the Chiefs.
Obviously it's against lesser competition, but check out these highlights of Chris Williams from his record-setting, award-winning 2012 season. Is there anything that jumps out at you? Are we doomed to talk about the Williams package?
How comfortable do you feel about the Bears' return game after eight years of Devin Hester?
(Force of habit: article pic in hi-res.)