Offseason Review: The Return Man

DevinHesterI’d originally grouped Devin in with the other specialists, but his section grew into a post of its own. As I go through other groups, I might have to break them down a bit as well, just to avoid 2000 word posts. I’m not Bill Simmons.

Devin HesterKR/PR

And now, the big one. Devin Hester is one of the most exciting players to ever put on a Bears uniform. I think he’s a Hall of Famer; no one has ever affected the game more as a returner than Devin has. For multiple seasons, teams routinely refused to kick to him at all, preferring (not unwisely) to give the Bears offense good field position and take their chances stopping Rex Grossman and/or Kyle Orton. And when opponents were forced to kick to him (or mistakenly did so) he made them pay more often than anyone else in league history; he tied Deion Sanders for most all time with his 19th regular season return touchdown this season. But if you count his Super Bowl kickoff return, and I don’t see why you shouldn’t for this sort of career statistic, he has 20. In any case, I have no doubt he’ll break the record outright at some point; the only question is whether he’ll still be in a Bears uniform when he does it.

For awhile, the Bears tried to position Hester as a #1 wide receiver, a role for which he was never suited. That changed this year, as Marc Trestman shifted Devin back to a full-time return man; he was rewarded with a league-leading 1442 kickoff return yards. Of course, he had nine more opportunities than the next return man thanks to the Bears inability to stop their opponents, but his average return distance of 27.7 ranked fifth in the league. Hilariously, he didn’t return enough punts to qualify for the punting categories; had he been qualified, his 14.2 yard average would have been third in the league. (A note: the Bears defense forced just 58 punts from their opponents, dead last in the league and 40 fewer than the league-leading Ravens. The Bears forced 88 last season, which was good for 8th. What a sorry year defensively.)

Hester only had one return touchdown, the aforementioned record-tier against the Rams. He had multiple near-misses, though; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many kickers and punters trip him up before. A few breaks here and there and he could have scored three or four more times. He still maddeningly refuses to field punts on occasion (which also contributed to his low return total) and he sometimes runs backwards once he does field the ball, resulting in a negative return. But when he’s fielding it on the run, making a quick cut, and hitting the jets, he can still create some very beautiful things.

So what should the Bears do with him? He’s a free agent, and considering his performance I’d think they would be happy to have him back on a team-friendly, short-term deal; he’ll be 32 next year, and spending bigger money on a full-time return man might not be a luxury the Bears want to consider. But that might not be what Devin is looking for, and it’s hard to blame him; he had a great year, and there are plenty of teams with cap room who might want to inject what he brings into their team. He’s still a weapon, and if the Bears are priced out, he’ll have his suitors. (Including, perhaps, a reunion with Lovie Smith in Tampa. Hester is from Florida, and he was always very close to Lovie.) If he does leave, the Bears have an early contender for a replacement in the recently signed Chris Williams, a former CFL return star who had been on the Saints practice squad.

If it’s time for Devin to move on, then that’s the way it goes. There is a business side to things, and I would understand it from both sides. It’d just be a shame, because this season we saw something of a return to form, glimpses of the player that he used to be before a positional shift and an increased offensive workload wore him down. I liked having that Devin Hester back, and if there’s a way to make it work for all parties without hampering the defensive overhaul, I’d be more than happy to have him back for 2014 as well.

Jay Rigdon is the editor and lead writer at Bleacher Nation Bears, and can also be found @BearsBN on Twitter.