The Chicago Bears have expressed confidence in Velus Jones Jr.’s abilities as a kickoff returner in the past, but they are making no promises that he will play that role for them in Week 1’s season opener against the Green Bay Packers.
Bears special teams coordinator Richard Hightower declined to name a No. 1 kickoff returner during his September 7 press conference when asked who he expects will play the role — Jones or fourth-round rookie Tyler Scott — for them in Sunday’s first game.
“That’s a great try,” Hightower joked with the reporter who asked him the question. “For me to divulge who is going to return kicks, [I] can’t do it.”
Jones — a 2022 third-round pick — is listed as the Bears’ primary kickoff returner on their Week 1 depth chart against the Packers, and Hightower just last month called Jones “one of the best kickoff returners in the league” after he finished with the fifth-most average return yards (27.6) on kickoffs during his 2022 rookie season.
The Bears will most likely have to choose one of their wide receivers to be a healthy scratch against the Packers, though, with seven wide receivers on their 53-man roster and not everyone allowed to dress for game day. That leaves Jones and Scott as the most likely candidates to watch the first game of the 2023 season from the sidelines.
“We’re still very much going through the 46. We’ve got our 53, and it’s our job as the special teams coaches to develop everyone,” Hightower said. “So it doesn’t matter who returns kicks for us, it doesn’t matter who returns anything for us. Our job as special teams coaches is to develop everyone, so I’m getting everyone ready. So when we decide who is the 46, whoever it is will then be ready. But for me to say this guy is No. 1, this guy is No. 2, I’m not going to say it because that’s what Green Bay is waiting on it.”
Bears Comfortable Naming Trent Taylor as Punt Returner
Hightower might not be willing to give up the name of his top choice for kickoff returns, but there is no question about who will be returning punts for the Bears on Sunday after they signed former Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Trent Taylor to play the role.
Taylor is coming off a terrific season returning punts for the Bengals, having tied for the fourth-most punt return yards (340) and the second-most total punt returns (33) in the league in 2022. He also already has the respect of his new special teams coordinator after he and Hightower worked together in San Francisco from 2017 to 2020.
“I think when you talk about Trent, when you talk about the person and the player and my history with the guy, obviously he’s an awesome teammate,” Hightower said. “He’s always beloved by his team, awesome teammate, great study habits, great work ethic on the field, a relentless mind and a relentless pursuit of his goals. Those are the things we really like about him and [we’re] happy to have him with us.”
Jones & Scott Must Both ‘Get Better at Their Craft’
The Bears have said they are willing to be patient with Jones and his development as a return specialist. He endured some hardships as a rookie, particularly on punts, but his speed and ball-carrier instincts are skills that Hightower and head coach Matt Eberflus both believe can be assets for them in the return game. The same thing goes for Scott.
So, what exactly is the next step in each of their developments?
“They’re both young players, so they’re both developing,” Hightower said. “They’ve just got to keep developing. The thing that is good about those two kids is that since Trent has gotten here, their attitude hasn’t changed. They haven’t wavered, they’re in the meeting room the same, they’re studying the same. They’re preparing hard, they’re catching, they’re trying to get better at their craft. So, the development for them is to keep doing what they’re doing and get better at it.”