LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Dante Pettis is reliable but lacks big-play explosion. Velus Jones Jr. can, in theory, bust a big play, but his continued mistakes make him a liability. Tyler Scott has Junior Olympian speed but is new to the punt return game.
As the Bears search for their best option at punt returner, a new name entered the fold Monday during a walk-through practice at Halas Hall: DJ Moore.
"He's been doing them in the offseason," special teams coordinator Richard Hightower said Monday. "He's done it before. He did it in college. DJ is good at that. Anybody who has a helmet on that can do it is an option always.
"Like I told you guys in the offseason, whichever receiver or DB that we have that’s up on game day, if they have the ability to return punts, they’re all going to work on it. He’s been doing that for a while. Obviously, you guys weren’t around in the offseason and like all of the Phase 2s and all of those different days, but he’s been doing that, so he’s done that before. It’s not like it’s a huge deal, like all of the sudden, ‘Whoa, DJ’s the guy at punt return.’ It’s not like that. It’s just everybody’s working at this time."
The Bears' top receiver took turns with Jones Jr., Scott, and cornerback Tyrique Stevenson returning punts. Moore has experience returning punts, and his explosive-play ability is well-documented.
But he's also the Bears' No. 1 receiver and best player. Losing him to an injury on special teams would be a death blow to what many believe will be a promising season.
In short: It would be inconceivable for the Bears to put Moore back there on Sundays.
"He wouldn’t be the starter there," Hightower said. "But he’s still going to take practice reps. Like, he’s going to take reps just like all the other guys take reps to get better to work on their craft, so … Yeah, he wouldn’t be our No. 1 option, no, if that’s what you’re asking."
In an ideal world, the Bears would like Jones to be the guy. He has game-changing speed and has already shown he can be a weapon as a kick returner. But the second-year receiver muffed two critical punts early last season before being pulled off the detail.
Jones worked on tracking and catching punts in the offseason and has looked good doing it in camp. But he muffed another punt in the Bears' preseason-opening win over the Tennessee Titans, leading to questions about both his long-term staying power on the roster and who the Bears' best option at punt returner is with the season 20 days away.
Hightower chalked Jones' punt return issues against the Titans up to fundamentals and the tricky hangtime from the punter. He doesn't lack confidence in Jones or anyone else in his room.
"You have to be confident to play this game – to coach it or play it," Hightower said. "If you're not confident, and you don’t know that you know – you’re always learning – but if you don’t know that you know, the people on the other side of the line are going to sniff that out, and they are going to eat you alive if they don’t see that confidence. So, we don’t lack confidence in that area."
Jones missed the Bears' preseason loss to the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday with an injury. Pettis got the nod as the first punt returner out of the gate. He fair caught the first punt and returned the second for a loss of 1 yard.
Jones returned to practice Monday and worked with Scott, Stevenson, and Moore catching punts.
When asked if Bears head coach Matt Eberflus gave him the green light to work Moore out as a returner, Hightower smiled.
"He wouldn't be back there if we didn't have permission," Hightower said.
But common sense dictates that "permission" only extends to the backfields at Halas Hall. Moore's gifts, while useful as a returner, are needed elsewhere. There's no reason for them to risk getting burned by playing with fire on special teams.