ATLANTA - OCTOBER 2: Devin Hester #23 of the Chicago Bears celebrates as he scores a touchdown on a 69 yard punt return against the Carolina Panthers at Soldier Field on October 2, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. Hester broke the NFL record with his 11th career punt return touchdown. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
Once the regular season starts, the Bears will feature arguably one of their most talented collections of offensive talent in franchise history. A stud quarterback, (presumably) a Pro Bowl running back, an All-Pro wideout, a second-round wideout, and the most reliable hands in the league (Earl Bennett). Not to mention solid backups in Jason Campbell and Michael Bush. Who am I forgetting? If you listen to the Bears, a major part of this offensive revival under new coordinator Mike Tice will be Devin Hester.
Seemingly on all fronts, any time a question is posed about the Bears' new capabilities on offense, Hester's name keeps popping up as a key piece of the puzzle. Brandon Marshall, Mike Tice, Daryl Drake have, at various times, all come out and said Hester will have a significant role in the success of the Bears' offense in 2012. But, after six seasons, do you think that Hester will be that vital to the success of the offense?
The amount of talk about Hester's role in the offense for next season has run the gambit from reasoned to absurd. We are talking about a six year veteran who has a total of thirteen receiving touchdowns and topped fifty catches in a season twice, right? A player who signed a new contract in 2008 based on his evolution as a top-tier wide receiver (which not only didn't happen, but negatively impacted his return game brilliance) only to finish last season with 26 catches, 369 yards, and one touchdown?
There is no doubting the one of a kind ability Hester has in the return game; bringing in Weems and Thomas are more about replacing Johnny Knox as the secondary return man than a threat to Hester. But I'm surprised that Hester as a key piece to the offensive puzzle is getting so much press. Is it because this is a boring time of the offseason where theories and expectations are thrown about as talking points?
The Bears have stoked the "Hester will be a great wide receiver" fire at every opportunity. Brandon Marshall's assertion that Hester will have a bigger role in the offense this year - calling him a possible "Pro Bowl receiver" - is hyperbole by Marshall only. Hester has one career 100-yard game - October 2009 versus Cincinnati - Marshall had five last year. Mike Tice revealed that as of now, Hester would be starting alongside Marshall, with Jeffrey learning the slot role and Earl Bennett tumbling to fourth on the depth chart. Obviously that doesn't mesh with Daryl Drake's assessment that playing Hester fifteen or so snaps this season will be better than trotting him out there seventy times a game. Does that mean Hester starts but barely plays? Why not just start Bennett then?
To be fair, I completely understand the reasoning behind the Bears' Hester push. Hester is a game-changing return man but the team has never been able to convert those electrifying skills into passing game success, no matter what they've tried. Plus, with Johnny Knox likely out this year, the team will need a deep threat they can count on to fill his shoes (but not slip in them). But do they really think Hester is going to prove to be something other than he already is?
According to Pro Football Focus, last year Hester had a drop rate of 13.33 percent, placing him 74th out of 91 eligible receivers. Who was worse than him? Dane Sanzenbacher at 20%, Roy Williams at 16%, and Brandon Marshall at 15%. The difference between Marshall and our 2011 Bears on the list? Hester had only 30 catchable balls thrown his way, Marshall had 95. While their drop rates are close, Marshall had triple the opportunities Hester had, and I doubt Hester's drop rate would remain steady if he had more balls thrown his way. 2010 was similar, with this link from the Washington Post featuring Hester with one of the worst drop rates in the league. Marshall was on the list as well, but with a lower drop rate on double the targets.
After six seasons, its aggravating that Lovie Smith (et al) continue to preach about the potential of Devin Hester the receiver. Yes, he can have a role in the offense; a vertical deep threat and catch-and-run bubble screen receiver that is on the field at times but isn't a focal point of the offense. I feel like the only reason his name keeps popping up so much is because he is "Devin Hester: Return Man Extraordinaire!". The Bears need him to contribute, but the news story should be how big a role can Jeffrey have in the passing game, not the "Hester package" or trying to throw him the ball 13 out of the 15 times on the field (that nugget doesn't help people like you, Drake, it just makes you look more incompetent). I assume we learned something from the Roy Williams hypefest last offseason, but here we are again, talking big about another veteran receiver that doesn't have the history to prove he can do it.