Devin Hester may not fancy himself an explorer, but the path he's navigating is seldom traveled by elite receivers.
Hester earned back-to-back Pro Bowl honors as a returner and set the league ablaze with 11 return touchdowns in his first two seasons. He averaged just over 14 yards per punt return and tallied 21 returns of more than 20 yards over 2006-07. In addition, Hester added a score on a 108-yard return of a missed field goal, which gives him 12 return touchdowns over the course of his young career.
With their electrifying returner displaying an unbelievable ability to put the ball in the end zone, the Bears began devising ways to get the ball into Hester's hands on offense. In 2007, Hester tallied 20 catches for 299 yards with two touchdowns and had three plays over 20 yards as a part-time receiver. Given his penchant for playmaking, the Bears wanted to maximize Hester's potential by having him play more extensively at receiver.
But the Bears envision Hester following the path of four-time Pro Bowler Steve Smith of the Carolina Panthers. The eight-year veteran earned a Pro Bowl berth as a returner during his rookie season and has since emerged as one of the league's top receivers. He led the league in receiving yards per game last season, and he earned a rare triple crown (he led in receiving yards and tied for the lead in receiving touchdowns and receptions) in 2005. The feisty receiver's unbelievable combination of speed, quickness and running skills makes him an impossible guard. He has carried the Panthers' passing game since emerging as their top receiving threat in 2003.
Whereas Smith functions as a classic lead receiver, the Bears don't need Hester to be a conventional No. 1. Most top targets are expected to anchor their team's passing games and produce big numbers. Moreover, they're judged by their ability to command double coverage, which opens up the rest of the field for their teammates.
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Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner has quietly crafted a passing game that works from the inside out with emerging star Greg Olsen serving as the team's top target. The third-year tight end finished second on the team with 54 receptions last season and will continue to anchor the Bears' aerial attack as the steady playmaker in the middle. Thus, the team only needs Hester to contribute big plays on the outside to loosen up some of the bracket or double coverage that will be used to lessen Olsen's impact.
In addition, Chicago's offense functions as a ball-control unit, relying on a power running game to bludgeon opponents. With Matt Forte serving as the workhorse, the Bears prefer a grind-it-out method of moving the football. Though Jay Cutler's arrival will result in an uptick in pass attempts, the team will never resemble the prolific passing attacks of the Cardinals, Saints and Patriots. Therefore, it's unrealistic to expect Hester to put up the kind of numbers that would rival other top targets throughout the league.
In fact, if Hester is able to amass over 1,000 yards receiving this season, he would become the first Bears receiver to surpass that total since Marty Booker posted back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns in 2001-2002.
Whereas the Bears would love for Hester to have that kind of impact, they would settle for the production that Bernard Berrian delivered in 2006. In that season, Berrian hauled in 51 balls for 775 yards (15.2 yards per catch) with six scores and finished with six receptions over 40 yards. Though those numbers are similar to Hester's tally from last season (51 catches for 665 yards with three touchdowns), it's the big-play element that the Bears are expecting in 2009.
Given Cutler's love of the deep ball, Hester's exceptional speed makes him the ideal recipient when the Bears turn to their vertical passing game. Thus, Hester's impact shouldn't be measured by his reception total, but rather by his yards-per-catch average. If the three-year veteran can average 16 yards or more per reception, he will provide the offense with enough explosive plays (plays covering 20 yards or more) to keep the unit churning effectively.
Although Hester's emergence as a No. 1 receiver would undoubtedly be a boon for the Bears, it comes with risks. The added offensive responsibility potentially diminishes his potency as a returner, and it takes away from the significant advantage the team enjoyed in the kicking game. With Hester providing big-yardage returns on a consistent basis, the Bears routinely won the coveted field-position battle and often set up their offense with prime scoring opportunities. In 2006, Hester's exceptional performance as a returner helped the Bears finish tied for the league's second-best scoring offense.
However, the former All-Pro returner failed to deliver the same punch with more playing time on offense in 2008. Hester averaged a career-low 6.2 yards per punt return and failed to score a return touchdown for the first time in his career. In addition, he saw his kick-return average go to 21.9 yards per attempt and was replaced by Danieal Manning by season's end.
Hester's dramatic decline as a returner flew under the radar last season, but the absence of the big return was one of the reasons the Bears narrowly missed the playoffs with a 9-7 record.