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Is punter Pat O’Donnell safe with the Chicago Bears?

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Chicago Bears punter Pat O’Donnell has always been scrutinized since being selected with a sixth-round pick in 2014. After all, it’s the territory for punters and kickers acquired in the draft. But this training camp might represent the first time where the scrutiny is tied to job security.

O’Donnell hit free agency in March but quickly re-signed with the Bears on an affordable one-year, $1.5 million contract with just $500,000 guaranteed. Although he was back in the fold quickly, there were reports that Ryan Pace pursued Bengals punter Kevin Huber out of the gate.

Given the length of the deal and apparent interest in another punter, O’Donnell could be on a short leash when the team heads to Bourbonnais in late July.

His numbers in 2017 certainly give the Bears a valid reason to bring in competition. Despite registering a career-high 87 punts and 4,087 total yards, he finished in the bottom half of the league in many key punting statistics.

  • Net average per punt – 7 yards (24th in NFL)
  • Punts inside the 20 yard line – 27 (19th in NFL)
  • Touchbacks – 6 (tied for 5th most in NFL)
  • Fair catches – 15 (tied for 23rd in NFL)

In fact, O’Donnell has finished near or in the bottom half of the league in net average and punts inside the 20 since his rookie year.

No one denies his strong leg. It’s why he’s affectionately known as MegaPunt by fans and teammates. But he consistently has shown issues with accuracy and placement since entering the league, and the numbers clearly back that up.

Earlier in his career, many attributed O’Donnell’s issues to his slow delivery, which led to blocked punts in his first two seasons. That’s why he changed his punting style to a quicker rugby delivery prior to the 2016 season.

Unfortunately, that tweak didn’t really improve his performance but not all of O’Donnell’s issues can be pinned solely on him. Sometimes, a punter is only as good as the coverage team and game plan he works with. Under former special teams coordinators Joe DeCamillis and Jeff Rodgers, those units were mediocre or below average.

Most punters across the league aren’t safe. And while O’Donnell is one of the rare exceptions who was drafted, he hasn’t done enough to secure a roster spot heading into the season.

Chris Tabor, a disciple of special teams guru Dave Toub, hinted Wednesday that rookie Ryan Winslow could compete for the job. Winslow is an undrafted free agent from Pittsburgh and has a nearly identical frame to O’Donnell (both measure at around 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds).

According to some scouting reports, the frame isn’t the only similarity. His NFL.com scouting report lists powerful leg and ability to throw the ball as strengths, but it also calls out stalled-out delivery and inability to pin balls inside the 20 as weaknesses.

Sound familiar?

If O’Donnell doesn’t have an impressive training camp or preseason, the Bears’ new coaching staff most likely won’t hesitate to find a new leg to be a part of their revamped special teams unit. Whether it’s Winslow or another leg remains to be seen.

And if he doesn’t stay as a punter, we know he can stay around to throw touchdowns on trick plays. Right?

Matt graduated with a Bachelor's degree of journalism from DePaul University in 2011 and currently works in the digital marketing world as a content manager. He's been a Chicago sports fan and almanac since childhood, and he has explainable superstitions leading up to Bears games. Aside from sports, Matt also shares a deep love for family, friends, faith, theater and creative writing.