Coaches love to talk about success in all three phases of the game: offense, defense, and special teams. For the Chicago Bears, they continue to have a problem with one aspect of that final phase: punt returner.
Last season, the hope for third round pick Velus Jones was to have success as a kick returner, a punt returner, and be some type of gadget guy where he can utilize his speed to help the offense. Jones failed to have consistent success in the offense, but did flash a few big plays, he showed that he is a strong kick returner, but it was the punt returns that were an issue.
Jones could not handle cleanly catching punts. He had multiple muff issues where the Bears pulled him as a punt returner and put reliable returner Dante Pettis back there to handle the duties.
Fast-forward to this season and the Bears have themselves a bit of an issue. NFL teams carry six wide receivers on a roster. With every team, they almost always carry this many. For the Bears, we know that DJ Moore, Darnell Mooney and Chase Claypool are going nowhere. We know rookie Tyler Scott will have a roster spot this year as well after Chicago invested a fourth round pick in him. For as much as he’s the subject of fans’ criticism, it’s also safe to say that Equanimeous St. Brown isn’t going anywhere either. ESB is a Luke Getsy guy, he’s an excellent blocker outside, and he has the prototypical body that teams need out at wide receiver.
That’s five wide receivers. It leaves one more spot. We have Velus Jones and we have Dante Pettis. Now the easy money is to say that Jones would have the last spot and that Pettis would be on the outside looking in. That’s certainly how it’s looked at training camp especially when you consider that Pettis had missed time with an injury.
But if the Bears cut Pettis and go with the obvious six, I have one question for you: who’s returning punts? There are two candidates for it: rookie Tyler Scott, who’s muffed punts and dropped passes in practice and had a fumble against the Titans, or Velus Jones who had the aforementioned punt muff problem in 2022 and against Tennessee, botched one of his two punt return opportunities.
Pettis is far from a spectacular punt returner, but he does one thing reliably: catch the ball. It seems like a simple task, but catching towering punts isn’t the easiest skill in the world and plenty of players struggle with it. While having Devin Hester back there returning punts is fantastic, the bottom line these days with punt returners is reliably catching the ball and now allowing favorable bounces to the opponent, or more importantly, not muffing a punt into a turnover.
If Pettis isn’t on this roster, Jones or Scott are going to have to return punts and most likely, it’ll have to be Jones. If Jones can’t do it, the question becomes, is he worth keeping on the roster? It’s tough to give up on a third round pick after just one season, but kick returns just aren’t that important these days with the rule changes and a second year player that barely sees time on offense and can’t help returning punts is a tough one to keep on the roster for developmental reasons.
Could the Bears try to stash Velus Jones on the practice squad and risk losing him outright? That’s a strategy that Ryan Poles could utilize as other NFL teams have also seen Jones’ struggles and there’s that old adage, you can’t teach speed.
The Bears have a punt return problem. They have other holes on the roster, sure, but this is one that could haunt Bears on Sundays if they don’t have someone reliable enough to return punts. If the end of August rolls around and Matt Eberflus and Poles don’t trust Jones or Scott to return punts, Pettis is going to have to be on this roster, and if that’s the case, it could be curtains on Velus Jones, Jr.