Bears offseason outlook: Special teams

Cairo Santos earned the Bears' kicking job and flourished in 2020. Now he's a free agent.

Editor's note: This marks the 11th piece in a series of positional outlooks for the Bears' roster entering this offseason. Click here to read the rest of them.

(670 The Score) For all the ups and downs of the Bears' past season, at least they found a kicker.

Cairo Santos took charge of the kicking position, which had ailed the Bears since their 2016 release of Robbie Gould. The 29-year-old Santos hit 30 of his 32 field-goal attempts in 2020, proving to be a bright spot for Chicago. Here's where the Bears' specialists stand as the offseason has begun and we look ahead to 2021.

Who's back
PR Tarik Cohen, 25 -- The Bears' punt returner, Cohen has three years remaining under contract and is coming off a torn ACL that he suffered last September. The hope is he makes a full recovery in time for training camp this summer.

Free agents
K Cairo Santos, 29 -- Fresh off a breakout season, Santos is set to become an unrestricted free agent. It's crucial for the Bears to bring Santos back and keep continuity at their kicking position.

P Pat O'Donnell, 30 -- The Bears' punter since 2014, O'Donnell averaged 45.7 yards per punt with a 39.5-yard net average last season.

LS Patrick Scales, 33 -- Chicago's entire special teams battery is set for free agency with Scales on the market again. He has been with the Bears since 2015.

K Eddy Pineiro, 25 -- The Bears' kicker in 2019, Pineiro lost his job to Santos after suffering a groin injury in August.

KR Cordarrelle Patterson, 29 -- An All-Pro selection last season, Patterson remains one of the best kickoff returners in the league.

How they got here
Pineiro never kicked for the Bears in 2020 -- even in practice. It was revealed in August that he was dealing with a groin injury, so Santos was signed as an insurance policy.

Santos made the Bears' initial 53-man roster in September while Pineiro ended up on injured reserve. The Bears believed Pineiro would return after missing the first few games of last season, but Santos never relinquished the job.

Santos looked to be the Bears' answer at kicker, hitting a franchise record 27 straight field goals and converting them at a 93.8% clip. An NFL kicker since 2014, Santos was finally fully healthy and had his best season yet.

O'Donnell enjoyed a decent season as well, improving his punting average from 44.8 yards in 2019 to to the 45.7-yard mark in 2020. Scales completed the team's battery with his consistent snapping.

Quote to note
"I just want to keep attacking, one kick at a time, like I’ve been saying all year, and the rest took care of itself. It’s been a crazy year for me with everything. Just so blessed and thankful for everything that this journey has been for me."
-- Santos on his 2020 season

What's ahead
The Bears need to bring Santos back to ensure they're not left with another void at kicker.

After all, the team was in a dark place at the position before the 2019 season, as the Bears held an exhaustive kicking competition that Pineiro eventually won. Since making the mistake of releasing Gould, Chicago has learned it can't take a stable kicking situation for granted.

The Bears would be wise to retain their entire battery of Santos, O'Donnell and Scales for 2021. They also could have voids on their other special teams units, with players like DeAndre Houston-Carson, Sherrick McManis and Barkevious Mingo all set to become unrestricted free agents.

But the most notable free agent on special teams is Patterson, who averaged 29.1 yards per kickoff return in his All-Pro season in 2020. Patterson should also be prioritized the Bears, but he'll certainly receive strong interest from other teams.

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.