Bears face uncertainty on special teams

CHICAGO -- It's shaping up to be an interesting offseason for Bears special teams coach Dave Toub. After overseeing one of the NFL's top outfits for the past seven seasons, Toub may be forced to enter 2011 without several key special teams contributors.

Moving on without certain special teams standouts is nothing new to Toub -- the Bears lost Brendon Ayanbadejo to free agency in 2008 and released Tim Shaw prior to the 2010 season -- but the sheer amount of potential losses gives reason for concern.

The top six special teams tacklers from last season (Corey Graham, Garrett Wolfe, Brian Iwuh, Rashied Davis, Rod Wilson and Josh Bullocks), punter Brad Maynard, kickoff return specialist Danieal Manning and versatile linebacker Nick Roach (three special teams tackles in the 2010 playoffs) all have expiring contracts.

While the Bears did tender Roach (four accrued seasons), Manning (5) and Graham (4) restricted-free-agent qualifying offers, all three could end up being unrestricted free agents once the owners and NFLPA finalize a new collective bargaining agreement.

Perhaps the biggest loss would be Graham, who played at a Pro Bowl level in 2010 and led the Bears with 25 regular-season special-teams tackles, plus a team-high six in the postseason. The Bears best chance to retain Graham would be as a restricted free agent, because, according to several NFL sources, the former fifth-round draft pick is likely to leave Chicago if he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

Graham recorded 93 tackles in nine starts at cornerback in 2008, but he failed to win over head coach Lovie Smith and consistently crack the starting lineup either at cornerback or nickelback the past two years. Smith opted to use the combination of Zack Bowman and Tim Jennings opposite Charles Tillman at cornerback, while D.J. Moore beat out Graham for the nickelback spot last summer. With the writing clearly on the wall, the defensive back knows his best chance to be a full-time starter on defense is to sign elsewhere in the offseason, according to NFL sources.

Manning is also expected to leave the Bears if he qualifies for unrestricted free agency -- ESPNChicago.com reported last week Manning rejected a three-year, $6 million contract extension during the regular season -- but the Bears are stocked in the return game with Devin Hester and Johnny Knox.

The Bears failed to tender Wolfe, who doesn't appear to be in the Bears' future plans, especially since the team gave up a seventh-round pick to select running back Harvey Unga in the 2010 Supplemental Draft. However, despite standing only 5-7, Wolfe carved out a solid niche on kickoff coverage and also served as the all-important personal protect on the punt team -- Wolfe made 48 special teams tackles the last three years.

Meanwhile, Maynard's situation remains up in the air. Certain members of the Bears organization were unhappy with Maynard's average yards per punt (40.1) and net average (35.2) in 2010, but the veteran remains one the best direction kickers in the NFL (24 punts were placed inside the 20-yard line). Plus, some of Maynard's struggles can certainly attributed to a hip injury that forced the punter to miss much of his offseason work prior to last season, not to mention kicking the ball in inclement weather.

The Bears did sign Richmond McGee to a futures/reserve contract, but McGee hasn't attempted a single punt in an NFL game. Maynard, on the other hand, has punted the ball more than 1,200 times, in every pressure-packed situation imaginable for the New York Giants and the Bears.

Maynard, kicker Robbie Gould and long snapper Patrick Mannelly are considered the most consistent trio of specialists in the league.

Citing NFL sources, ESPNChicago.com reported the Bears are attempting to re-sign Iwuh to a two-year contract.

With so many moving parts, it should be an interesting offseason for the Bears' third phase.