Rookie safety Winston Venable a perfect fit on Bears special teams
By Mark Potash firstname.lastname@example.org September 9, 2011 11:56PM
Cleveland Browns wide receiver Demetrius Williams (88) is hit by Chicago Bears safety Winston Venable (49) during an incomplete pass in the second half an NFL preseason football game in Chicago, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2011. Venable was called for unnecessary roughness on the play.(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Updated: November 24, 2011 12:24AM
Asked about newcomers who might become impact players on special teams, one Bears veteran didn’t know the name, just the number.
‘‘We’ve got a rookie safety, 49,’’ he said. ‘‘He’s aggressive as [all get-out]. He makes a lot of plays. He’s definitely going to be an addition for us.’’
At least he had the number right. Some players don’t find out who Winston Venable is until they regain consciousness. The safety from Boise State and Glendale (Ariz.) Community College eventually figures to get his chance on defense. But he made the Bears’ roster as an undrafted free agent because he hits hard, hits often and plays special teams.
‘‘He’s fast, he’s tough and he plays with reckless abandon,’’ Bears special-teams ace Corey Graham said of Venable. ‘‘He’s exactly the type of player you look for on special teams.’’
Venable, 24, the son of former big-league outfielder Max Venable and the younger brother of San Diego Padres outfielder Will Venable, will be one of several rookies whom special-teams coordinator Dave Toub is counting on to establish themselves quickly this season. The Bears’ special-teams units will be challenged to maintain their elite status in the NFL because of the high rate of turnover from last season. Also, the NFL lockout eliminated all offseason workouts that are vital to new players. The NFL rule change moving kickoffs from the 35-yard line instead of the 30 — inducing more touchbacks that could diminish the Bears’ dangerous kickoff-return game — adds an additional challenge for Toub.
But it’s the number of newcomers that has Toub warning that special teams will be ‘‘a work in progress’’ this season.
‘‘We’ve got a lot of new players,’’ he said. ‘‘We may have four rookies starting on each phase. That’s a lot.’’
Venable, safety Chris Conte, linebacker Dom DeCicco, tight end Kyle Adams and wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher will be among the rookies most likely to play on special teams.
‘‘There’s going to be some growing pains with these guys,’’ Toub said. ‘‘Hopefully they don’t all happen at once, just sporadic, and you try to minimize them and nip ’em in the bud at practice.
‘‘But there are going to be [mistakes]. We just didn’t spend enough time with these guys to help develop them during the [offseason practices that were canceled by the lockout] — that makes a big difference.’’
With his reckless abandon, the 5-11, 210-pound Venable is a prime candidate to emerge as an impact special-teams player. He already has the mentality for it — he just likes to hit anything that moves. Venable won the ‘‘Hammer Award’’ at Boise State. In 2009, he destroyed an Idaho kicker on a teammate’s 100-yard kickoff return. Last year, he was suspended for a half-game by the WAC for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Oregon State’s James Rodgers, who was blocking on a quarterback scramble. Rodgers suffered a concussion.
And if you have the ball, he’s just as dangerous. In the Bears’ preseason game Sept. 1 against the Cleveland Browns, Venable was penalized for unnecessary roughness for a helmet-to-helmet hit on wide receiver Demetrius Williams. Venable was fined $20,000 by the NFL for the hit — he hopes to have it reduced upon appeal (the NFL rookie salary is $357,000). But for Venable, it’s a price worth paying.
‘‘If it was a positive in the coaches’ eyes, absolutely,’’ he said. ‘‘If it helped get me here, I won’t feel too bad about writing the check.’’
The Bears feel they’re solid as ever with their specialists. Robbie Gould made 6 of 10 field goals in the preseason, missing from 29, 33, 55 and 56 yards. But he’s the fifth-most accurate kicker in NFL history (159-for-186, 85.5 percent), including 50-for-51 (98 percent) inside of 40 yards over the last three seasons.
Punter Adam Podlesh is expected to be as accurate as Brad Maynard but with a stronger leg. Pat Mannelly is still considered the best long snapper in the league.
Devin Hester is one of the best punt returners in the NFL but could share that role with Johnny Knox, depending on how much time Knox ends up with at wide receiver.
The great unknown is the effect of the new kickoff rule. Knox has a 27.7-yard career average on kickoff returns (40 returns). Hester averaged 35.6 yards on 12 returns last season. But their opportunities figure to be diminished with kickoffs going out of the end zone. It’s just a question of how much.
‘‘Right now, if we get a returnable ball, we’re coming out with it like we always do,’’ Toub said. ‘‘You just have to take advantage of the ones you get.’’