The Atlanta Falcons continued to bolster their roster for the 2014 season with the addition of the most accomplished kick return man in NFL history.
Devin Hester, who spent his first eight seasons with the Chicago Bears, agreed to a three-year contract with the Falcons. The 31-year-old Hester could have an impact both on special teams and as a receiver. He just needed a fresh start.
Hester has a chance to set a new NFL record for touchdown returns, a record he currently shares with his mentor and former Falcon Deion Sanders (each with 19). Playing indoors at the Georgia Dome might help him accomplish the feat sooner than later.
ESPN.com Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure and Bears reporter Michael C. Wright review what the move means for both teams.
McClure: Naturally, folks are going to ask if Devin Hester still has it. He turns 32 in November and, of course, hasn’t had as many touchdown returns lately as he had earlier in his career. How much juice do you believe he has in him based on what you saw last year?
Wright: Vaughn, Hester’s still got it, man. Even though Hester didn’t exactly light it up last season, I think a lot of folks don’t realize how much all the injuries affected the blocking on special teams. You know how it works: a starter goes down. Then the team has to pull the backup off special teams to fill the starting role, and bring in a virtual nobody (sometimes even guys who might have been on the street just days before) to play special teams. That’s sort of what happened to the Bears last season, and Hester was affected by that. Early in the season, Hester busted Minnesota for 249 yards on kickoff returns. About a month later, Hester broke an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown at Washington. Then, in the season finale against Green Bay (and you know how the footing at Soldier Field is in late December), Hester broke loose for 49 yards on a punt return. Those big plays in the return game can give a team so much momentum, and Hester still possesses plenty of juice to make such plays possible.
Vaughn, you were here in Chicago when the Bears were trying to make Hester a receiver. In your opinion, why didn’t it work out, and will Hester actually get a chance to play offense in Atlanta because having covered Dirk Koetter in Jacksonville, he’s always struck me as a very innovative guy?
McClure: Hester had his moments as a receiver in Chicago, although some folks criticized his ability to pick up the offense. He caught a career-high 57 passes for the Bears in 2009 and posted 40 or more catches in three seasons. Former Bears receivers coach Darryl Drake had an extreme amount of faith in Hester and constantly touted him as a No. 1 receiver. Now, those were high expectations to meet, maybe too high. But Hester's real downfall on offense in Chicago, from my perspective, was his inability to establish chemistry with quarterback Jay Cutler. I know Hester can sometimes take criticism to heart, and Cutler didn’t bite his tongue in speaking his mind. I think Hester just got fed up with getting beat down, which is why he asked not to play offense anymore. Again, this is a fresh start. If he’s utilized on offense, as expected, he won’t be asked to be the primary target with Julio Jones and Roddy White in the equation. But he can be a valuable weapon for quarterback Matt Ryan out of the slot in the screen game and with reverses. The coaches in Chicago thought Hester’s best route was the deep post.
MCW, we saw what happened with Brian Urlacher in Chicago. Then a Hall of Fame candidate such as Hester walks out the door right behind him. What’s the feeling within the team about letting such respected players go, even if they’re not in their prime?
Wright: I’m sure some of the veteran players such as Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman aren’t thrilled about it, but everyone in that locker room understands the business end of things aren’t pretty; especially with a fairly new general manager in Phil Emery and a new coach in Marc Trestman still trying to put his stamp on the organization. Shoot, Tillman almost didn’t find his way back. I remember Urlacher saying something about the team not having any loyalty when it announced it wasn’t going to re-sign Hester. So there’s certainly a segment of players not happy about this. I’d say the majority of the heavy special-teams contributors aren’t pleased about Hester’s departure because he’s the type of player that can make his blockers look good, obviously. Chicago currently is a team in transition, and a lot of the players brought in when former coach Lovie Smith was running the show are now seemingly on the way out.
How much of an advantage do you see in Hester playing on turf in the Georgia Dome as opposed to him returning kicks on what had usually been a sloppy track at Soldier Field all these years?
McClure: I think it will be an advantage and a disadvantage at the same time. Naturally Hester will be able to field punts and kickoffs cleaner without dealing with the wind and cold in Chicago. He should be quicker on the FieldTurf surface, although opponents will be faster on it, too. Where it might work to his disadvantage is on kickoffs. There’s likely to be little to no chance he gets to return based on touchbacks. And now the league is talking about moving kickoffs up from the 35 to the 40-yard line. It might take the kickoff return from the game, completely. So, we’ll see how Hester adjusts. I remember watching Hester bring back kickoffs for scores indoors at St. Louis. We’ll see if he can recapture his magic.
Hester was beloved in Chicago for so many years. Who will the Bears count on to replace Hester in the return game? Chicago got so accustomed to his unique ability.
Wright: See, that’s my problem with Hester leaving. You’ve got to have someone waiting in the wings to replace Hester’s production, and that player simply isn’t there. It seemed like the Bears did the same thing when they decided to release Julius Peppers and replace him with a guy coming off a career-high six sacks, while Peppers -- despite a down year -- generated more sacks. Toward the end of last season, the Bears signed receiver/return specialist Chris Williams, who had spent time with the New Orleans Saints and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League before joining the club. The club also recently signed Domenik Hixon, who didn’t even contribute last season in the return game for the Carolina Panthers. Earl Bennett would have seemed a good candidate to replace Hester, but the Bears released him. I guess Eric Weems and Michael Ford, who was an undrafted rookie in 2013, also are candidates. All of those players have one thing in common though: none are even close to being on Hester’s level as a return man. So it’ll be interesting to see how Chicago handles replacing arguably the greatest return man to ever play the game.
As you well know, sometimes Hester makes questionable decisions when fielding punts and kickoffs. How will he mesh with special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong, who worked for the Bears prior to Hester’s arrival in Chicago, and do you think the coach will alleviate some of those issues?
McClure: I’m going to keep this short and sweet: Armstrong won’t tolerate it. I saw how he got after guys for fumbling in games, and one return man even lost his job because of it. Armstrong is one of the best special-teams coaches in the business and holds players to high standards. He won’t bend the rules for Hester.