NFC North: Devin Hester

Devin HesterJoe Rimkus Jr./Miami Herald/MCT
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We’re running down the three most memorable plays in Chicago Bears franchise history, and today marks the first of the plays nominated. Over the next two days we’ll feature: How Walter Payton displayed his signature strength and speed in breaking tackles during a run against the Kansas City Chiefs. It was the run which Jim Brown said convinced him of Payton’s greatness. And William “Refrigerator” Perry’s 1-yard touchdown in Chicago’s drubbing of New England in Super Bowl XX that robbed Payton of the opportunity to score a touchdown on the game’s biggest stage.

Please vote for your choice as the Bears’ most memorable play.

Score: Colts 29, Bears 17
Date: Feb. 4, 2007 Site: Dolphin Stadium

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If setting an NFL record as a rookie by taking six kick returns to the house for touchdowns didn’t cement Devin Hester’s nickname as the Windy City Flyer, his exploits to start off Super Bowl XLI against the Indianapolis Colts certainly did.

Seven players previously returned kickoffs for touchdowns, but Hester became the first in the game’s history to take the opening kickoff back for a score. Hester did it with a breathtaking 92-yard return that gave Chicago the start it needed. Unfortunately for the Bears, they couldn’t maintain that momentum in what would become a 29-17 loss.

“We knew we were capable of returning one,” Hester said afterward. “Once we got a chance to get our hands on it, we knew we had a great chance to get into the end zone. It was a right return and it was set up the way [former Bears special-teams coordinator] Dave Toub planned it. It was just being patient, and trusting your teammates that they’re going to be there to set up the blocks. That’s what happened.”

Hester fielded Adam Vinatieri’s kickoff near the left sideline, and worked his way back toward the middle of the field. In the process, Hester faked left to make a few Colts defenders miss in the middle of the field, and then turned on the jets down the right hash mark as he headed toward the right sideline. Near the 35-yard line, Vinatieri dove at Hester’s feet. But the return man was too far away. It was off to the races.

Interestingly, near the end of the run Hester could be seen watching himself on the stadium’s video board as he crossed the goal line.

The play took 14 seconds off the clock, and given Indianapolis’ struggles covering kickoffs that season, the Colts never should have kicked to Hester in the first place.

Hester currently is tied with Deion Sanders for the most combined return touchdowns (19), but his return TD in Super Bowl XLI isn’t included because it occurred in the postseason. The Bears decided not to bring back Hester after the 2013 season, and in March he signed with the Atlanta Falcons.

Return man Devin Hester departed for the Atlanta Falcons via free agency, but it’s clear he’d like to still be with the Chicago Bears.

Hester made that apparent Wednesday with a couple of posts on his Twitter account.

Hester is correct that there’s a good chance his exploits in Chicago won’t ever be duplicated, but he shouldn’t dismiss the possibility of eventually retiring as a Bear. From the looks of everything, the sides parted on good terms. When the Bears announced they wouldn’t re-sign Hester, general manager Phil Emery put out a complimentary statement, thanking the return man for his contributions over the years.

One team source even said that “Devin holds a very special place for me. He is loved and well-respected by everybody. This is one of the harsh realities of the business aspect of the NFL.”

“For the past eight seasons we have been honored to have Devin Hester as a part of our organization,” Emery said in a statement. “While Devin has redefined the pinnacle standard of the return position in the NFL, the memories and contributions he has given us cannot be measured by stats or numbers. Not only is Devin a special player, he is also an exceptional person. He is a great teammate, husband and father. Devin represented the organization off the field as well as he did on it. When his career is over, he will always be a welcome member of the Bears family. We thank him for his dedication and wish his family the best.”

In the 2013 season, Hester averaged 27.6 yards per kickoff return and 14.2 yards per punt return, and he is the NFL’s all-time leader in punt return touchdowns (13) and punt/kick return TDs (18). In all, Hester has produced 20 return TDs, which is an NFL record.
On the eve of free agency two weeks ago, our four NFC North reporters -- Rob Demovsky (Green Bay Packers), Ben Goessling (Minnesota Vikings), Michael Rothstein (Detroit Lions) and Michael C. Wright (Chicago Bears) -- compiled a list of the top-15 free agents in the division.

Only three of the original 15 remain unsigned as free agency enters its third week. One of them, former Packers tight end Jermichael Finley, could remain that way for a while because of his neck injury.

Perhaps the biggest-name free agent from the NFC North, former Bears defensive end Julius Peppers, did not make the original list because he was not a free agent until he was released shortly after free agency opened. He signed with the Packers on March 15.

You can follow all of the NFL free-agent moves in Bill Polian's free-agent tracker, but let's revisit the NFC North top 15 and see what has changed in the last week:

1. Sam Shields, Packers CB: Signed a four-year, $39 million contract just a few hours into the open negotiating period on March 8. His $9.75 million per year average made him the fourth-highest paid cornerback in the league behind Darrelle Revis ($16 million), Brandon Carr ($10 million) and Aqib Talib ($9.8 million).

2. Brandon Pettigrew, Lions TE: Re-signed with the Lions for four years and $16 million, including a $4 million signing bonus.

3. Jermichael Finley, Packers TE: Trying to come back from neck fusion surgery, Finley remained unsigned after a visit to the Seattle Seahawks during free-agency's first week. According a report in the Green Bay Press-Gazette over the weekend, the Seahawks failed Finley on his physical during the visit, leaving his status in doubt.

4. Charles Tillman, Bears CB: Signed a one-year contract to return to Chicago after missing half of last season because of a torn triceps. The deal is worth about $3.5 million.

5. B.J. Raji, Packers DT: Less than a year after reportedly turning down a multi-year offer that averaged $8 million per season, he returned to the Packers for a one-year, $4 million contract.

6. Matt Cassel, Vikings QB: Opted out of his 2014 contract after the Super Bowl but signed a new two-year, $10.5 million deal with the Vikings on March 7, just before teams could start contacting his agent and will likely head into training camp with the inside track on the starting job.

7. Willie Young, Lions DL: Signed a three-year, $9 million contract with the Bears. Former seventh-round pick received his first extensive playing time with the Lions in 2013, becoming a full-time starter after Jason Jones was injured for the season in Week 3.

8. James Jones, Packers WR: After going unsigned during the first week of free agency, Jones signed a three-year, $10 million contract with the Oakland Raiders. The deal was similar to the three-year, $9.6 million deal he signed with the Packers three years ago.

9. Jared Allen, Vikings DE: Was weighing an offer from Seattle, where he has visited twice since the start of free agency. After three All-Pro selections in six years, Allen's time in Minnesota is over.

10. Josh McCown, Bears QB: Signed a two-year, $10 million contract to rejoin his old coach, Lovie Smith, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

11. Henry Melton, Bears DL: Coming off a torn ACL, Melton signed a one-year contract with the Dallas Cowboys that could become a four-year deal if the team exercises an option after the first year.

12. Devin Hester, Bears KR: Signed a three-year, $9 million with the Atlanta Falcons after the Bears decided not to pursue an extension with the kick return specialist.

13. Rashean Mathis, Lions CB: Remained unsigned after playing in 15 games and taking over as a starter early in the season last year.

14. Everson Griffen, Vikings DE: Cashed in on March 9th by signing a five-year, $42.5 million deal that included $20 million guaranteed to return to Minnesota.

15. Louis Delmas, Lions S: Signed a one-year, $2.25 million contract with the Miami Dolphins after the Lions released him with one year remaining on his contract in February, in part because of a cap number of $6.5 million in 2014.
 

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?

[+] EnlargeDevin Hester
AP Photo/Kiichiro SatoNow in his early 30s, return whiz Devin Hester proved last season that he's far from slowing down.
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.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Green Bay Packers signed one former Chicago Bears' Pro Bowl player in defensive end Julius Peppers, so why not another in return specialist Devin Hester?

Hester
The Packers have not gotten involved yet with Hester, who visited the Falcons on Tuesday, but they could if the price is right.

According to an NFL personnel evaluator whose team has discussed the possibility of going after Hester, the former Pro Bowl return specialist is currently seeking a deal in the $4-million-per-year range.

However, that may be too high for teams interested in the 31-year-old return man.

If Hester discovers the market for his services is lower, it could bring in more teams, the Packers among them, when the price drops.

The Packers want to upgrade their return game while also taking receiver Randall Cobb out of that job. Cobb, who has three career special teams touchdowns on returns, will take on an even greater role on offense this season after the departure of James Jones.

After Jeremy Ross was released and Cobb sustained a knee injury early last season, the Packers turned to rookie cornerback Micah Hyde as their primary returner. Hyde ranked fifth in the NFL last season in punt return average (12.3 yards per return) and had one touchdown. But the Packers struggled all season on kickoff returns, ranking 30th with a 20.3-yard average. Hyde is expected to have a larger role on defense this season, perhaps even moving to safety.

The Bears decided not to re-sign Hester after his contract expired following last season. He holds the NFL record for kickoff and punt returns for touchdowns with 18, one of which came last season on a punt return.
CHICAGO -- The Chicago Bears have asked veteran kick returner/wide receiver Eric Weems to take a pay cut from the $1.1 million base salary he is scheduled to earn in 2014, according to a source familiar with the situation.

Weems
Weems is expected to be released if he declines the proposed salary reduction, per the source.

Weems signed a three-year deal, $4.25 million that included a $1.5 million bonus. His salary cap number for the upcoming season is $1.6 million, but the Bears would have to carry $500,000 worth of dead money if Weems is released, making the total salary cap savings $1.1 million.

It’s believed the Bears want Weems’ contract to mirror the deal Domenik Hixon signed last week. Hixon inked a one-year, $730,000 deal that included $100,000 worth of roster bonuses if Hixon is active on game days (6.25K per game active).

Weems, a seven-year NFL veteran, made 13 special teams tackles and caught one pass for eight yards last season. He made the Pro Bowl in 2010 while a member of the Atlanta Falcons.

Weems is not the only wide receiver being asked to accept a salary reduction. Although it hasn’t happened yet, the Bears are expected to approach Earl Bennett about taking another pay cut after the veteran lowered his salary by $1 million in 2013.

Bennett had a cap number of $1.35 million (after the reduction) last year, but is scheduled to count $2.45 million against the Bears' cap in 2014 and earn a total of $2.45 million (that includes a $100,000 roster bonus).

The Bears could offer to allow Bennett to earn back the money in the form of incentives as the club did last year. Bennett finished 2013 with 32 receptions for 243 yards and four touchdowns, but had to miss the final game of the year versus the Green Bay Packers to be with his ailing brother who tragically passed away in the offseason.

Bennett has been a reliable target throughout his Bears' career when healthy. After not catching a single pass his rookie year of 2008, Bennett has 185 receptions for 2,277 yards and 12 touchdowns over the last five seasons in just 78 regular season games. Bennett is also a capable punt returner and could be in the mix to land the job with Devin Hester departing via free agency.
On the eve of free agency last week, our four NFC North reporters -- Rob Demovsky (Green Bay Packers), Ben Goessling (Minnesota Vikings), Michael Rothstein (Detroit Lions) and Michael C. Wright (Chicago Bears) -- compiled a list of the top-15 free agents in the division.

A week has passed and nine of them already have come off the market, including six who re-signed with their old teams.

Perhaps the biggest-name free agent from the NFC North, former Bears defensive end Julius Peppers, did not make the original list because he was not a free agent until he was released last week. He signed with the Packers on Saturday.

You can follow all of the NFL free-agent moves in Bill Polian's free-agent tracker, but let's revisit the NFC North top 15 and see what has changed:

1. Sam Shields, Packers CB: Signed a four-year, $39 million contract just a few hours into the open negotiating period on March 8. His $9.75 million per year average made him the fourth-highest paid cornerback in the league behind Darrelle Revis ($16 million), Brandon Carr ($10 million) and Aqib Talib ($9.8 million).

2. Brandon Pettigrew, Lions TE: Re-signed with the Lions for four years and $16 million, including a $4 million signing bonus.

3. Jermichael Finley, Packers TE: Remained unsigned after a visit to the Seattle Seahawks last week. It’s not known what the Seahawks' medical staff thought of Finley's C-3/C-4 neck vertebra fusion surgery that he had last November following his season-ending neck injury.

4. Charles Tillman, Bears CB: Signed a one-year contract to return to Chicago last Friday after missing half of last season because of a torn triceps. The deal is worth about $3.5 million.

5. B.J. Raji, Packers DT: Less than a year after reportedly turning down a multi-year offer that averaged $8 million per season, he returned to the Packers for a one-year deal signed on Friday that was believed to be worth $4 million plus incentives.

6. Matt Cassel, Vikings QB: Opted out of his 2014 contract after the Super Bowl but signed a new two-year, $10.5 million deal with the Vikings on March 7, just before teams could start contacting his agent and will likely head into training camp with the inside track on the starting job.

7. Willie Young, Lions DL: Signed a three-year, $9 million contract with the Bears. Former seventh-round pick received his first extensive playing time with the Lions in 2013, becoming a full-time starter after Jason Jones was injured for the season in Week 3.

8. James Jones, Packers WR: Remained unsigned after the first week of free agency and has not had any known visits even after he ranked second on the Packers last season in receptions (59) and yards (817), the latter of which was a career high despite missing nearly three full games because of a knee injury. Three years ago, coming off the NFL lockout, Jones did not draw strong interest on the free-agent market and re-signed with the Packers for three years and $9.6 million. Could the same thing happen again?

9. Jared Allen, Vikings DE: Remained unsigned after the first week of free agency but reportedly visited the Seattle Seahawks over the weekend. After three All-Pro selections in six years, Allen's time in Minnesota is over.

10. Josh McCown, Bears QB: Signed a two-year, $10 million contract to rejoin his old coach, Lovie Smith, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

11. Henry Melton, Bears DL: Coming off a torn ACL, Melton went unsigned during the first wave of free agency but has a visit scheduled with the Dallas Cowboys this week.

12. Devin Hester, Bears KR: Remained unsigned more than a week after the Bears said they would not bring him back.

13. Rashean Mathis, Lions CB: Remained unsigned after playing in 15 games and taking over as a starter early in the season last year.

14. Everson Griffen, Vikings DE: Cashed in on March 9th by signing a five-year, $42.5 million deal that included $20 million guaranteed to return to Minnesota.

15. Louis Delmas, Lions S: Signed a one-year, $2.25 million contract with the Miami Dolphins after the Lions released him with one year remaining on his contract in February, in part because of a cap number of $6.5 million in 2014.
CHICAGO -- The idea of three-time Pro Bowl returner Devin Hester reuniting with ex-Chicago Bears' special teams coordinator Dave Toub in Kansas City remains "a possibility," according to a source with direct knowledge of the situation, but the Chiefs are not believed to have the financial flexibility to overspend to acquire Hester.

Hester
Hester earned a total of $2,107,523 in the final year of his contract with the Bears, but he is not expected to command that kind of money on the open market after the Bears announced Hester would not be re-signed.

One league source anticipates Hester will have to settle for around $1 million, although it's unknown if any concrete figures were exchanged between Hester and interested teams during the NFL's legal tampering period leading up the start of free agency.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with former Bears and current Bucs head coach Lovie Smith calling the shots, are also believed to be a potential match for Hester.

Hester set the Bears' single-game record last year with 249 kickoff return yards versus the Minnesota Vikings in Week 2. He finished the year with 51 kickoff returns for 1,436 yards (27.6 yard average) and 18 punt returns for 256 yards and one touchdown.

Hester holds the all-time NFL record for combined career kick return touchdowns with 18.

Top free-agent roundup: NFC North

March, 10, 2014
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A few deals have been signed around the NFC North in the days leading up to free agency, but plenty of valuable players are about to hit the open market.

Here is a ranking of top NFC North free agents, with information provided by ESPN.com reporters Rob Demovsky (Green Bay Packers), Ben Goessling (Minnesota Vikings), Michael Rothstein (Detroit Lions) and Michael C. Wright (Chicago Bears).

We will update this periodically throughout the next several weeks.

1.Sam Shields, Packers CB: Emerged as the Packers' top cover cornerback last season while playing for the restricted free-agent tender of $2.023 million and was re-signed to a four-year, $39 million contract just a few hours into the open negotiating period Saturday. His 2014 total pay of $15 million makes him the NFL's second-highest-paid cornerback for next season.

2. Brandon Pettigrew, Lions TE: The No. 20 pick in the 2009 draft out of Oklahoma State, Pettigrew spent the past five seasons as one of Detroit's primary tight ends, specifically known for the ability to both block and run routes effectively.

3. Jermichael Finley, Packers TE: Had surgery to fuse the C3 and C4 vertebra in his neck but expects to be cleared by his doctor. Gambled two years ago in free agency, signing just a two-year, $14 million deal in the hope that he would blossom into a star and command an even bigger contract the next time around.

4. Charles Tillman, Bears CB: The NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year, Tillman started eight games last season before finishing on the injured reserve with a torn triceps. The Bears hope to bring back Tillman but might not be able to come up with a suitable offer.

5. B.J. Raji, Packers DT: Reportedly turned down an $8 million per year offer from the Packers last season, which might have been a sign that he preferred to play in a system that gave defensive linemen more freedom. After a disappointing season, his value has gone down, and as of last week, he was close to signing a one-year deal to return.

Cassel
Cassel
6. Matt Cassel, Vikings QB: Opted out of his 2014 contract after the Super Bowl but signed a new two-year deal with the Vikings on Friday, just before teams could start contacting his agent. He will likely head into training camp with the inside track on the starting job.

7. Willie Young, Lions DL: Former seventh-round pick received his first extensive playing time in 2013, becoming a full-time starter after Jason Jones was injured for the season in Week 3. Young turned into one of the more disruptive players up front, making 47 tackles, recovering two fumbles and recording three sacks.

8. James Jones, Packers WR: Ranked second on the Packers last season in receptions (59) and yards (817), the latter of which was a career high despite missing nearly three full games because of a knee injury. Three years ago, coming off the NFL lockout, Jones did not draw strong interest on the free-agent market and re-signed with the Packers for three years and $9.6 million.

9. Jared Allen, Vikings DE: After three All-Pro selections in six years, Allen’s time in Minnesota is likely over. He could come back as a situational pass-rusher on a reduced salary, but after making $14 million last season, Allen might head elsewhere for a bigger role and bigger paycheck.

McCown
10. Josh McCown, Bears QB: He proved he is capable of filling in for Jay Cutler in a pinch and is instrumental behind the scenes for nearly every skill player on the offense. It's not a slam dunk he will be back, and talks with the Bears haven't been especially productive.

11. Henry Melton, Bears DL: Melton's representatives fully expect him to test the market in free agency because the Bears haven’t shown a ton of interest. Coming off a torn ACL, Melton probably won't command top dollar in the first wave of free agency.

12. Devin Hester, Bears KR: Became strictly a return specialist for the Bears last season and is still one of the league's best at his position. Probably expects a payday similar to what he's gotten in the past.

13. Rashean Mathis, Lions CB: Mathis signed with Detroit during the 2013 preseason and became one of the team's starting cornerbacks by the third week of the season. He played in 15 games, making 47 tackles and often drawing the opponent's top wide receiver.

14. Everson Griffen, Vikings DE: The 26-year-old cashed in on Sunday by signing a five-year, $42.5 million deal that included $20 million guaranteed to return to Minnesota. He should flourish in new coach Mike Zimmer's defensive scheme.

15. Louis Delmas, Lions S: The 26-year-old was released by Detroit with one year remaining on his contract in February, in part because of a cap number of $6.5 million in 2014. Has played in 65 games for Detroit over five seasons, with 328 tackles, six interceptions and two forced fumbles. He also had five sacks and four fumble recoveries.

Free-agency primer: Bears

March, 7, 2014
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» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Key free agents: Charles Tillman, Henry Melton, D.J. Williams, Major Wright, Devin Hester, Corey Wootton, Josh McCown.

Where they stand: The club informed Hester it won't be re-signing him for 2014, but the Bears are making a concerted effort to try to bring back Tillman. Still, there's a chance the economics won't work out, as Tillman could have other suitors willing to pay more than Chicago. The Bears did some work in re-signing free agents, such as defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff, cornerback Kelvin Hayden along with center Roberto Garza, to cap-friendly deals. Negotiations to re-sign McCown have moved along slowly, which means there's a chance the Bears could lose him if another team gives the backup an opportunity to win a starting job. There's interest from both sides in re-signing Williams, and talks are expected to continue over the weekend.

What to expect: At this point, it's unknown where Chicago's pro personnel department has rated its own unsigned free agents against what else is available on the market. So count on the Bears waiting to see what the market value for their own players is before moving to re-sign them, which is actually a smart move that will keep them from overpaying. The Bears aren't expected to overspend on big names in free agency, but general manager Phil Emery has been known in recent years to make a couple of surprise moves. The Bears would like to infuse youth on defense, but that could prove to be a pricey proposition in free agency for a team with limited cap space. They do have the flexibility to free up cash by cutting players such as Julius Peppers, or restructuring Jay Cutler's deal, which includes a base salary of $22.5 million in 2014.
Former Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher weighed in Thursday on the team’s decision to part ways with return man Devin Hester.

Hester played eight seasons with the Bears, but on Wednesday was informed the club was looking to “go a different way with me,” he said on NFL Network. Urlacher told FoxSports.com he was “really surprised” to hear his former teammate would no longer be a Bear.

“You think of Devin returning all those punts and kicks as a Bear,” said Urlacher, now an NFL analyst for Fox Sports 1. “He’s going to break the record on another team, probably. It’s crazy to think he won’t be in a Bears uniform doing that. It’s frustrating as an ex-Bear and a player to see that happen.”

Especially when you’ve got firsthand experience with the business side of the NFL as Urlacher suffered a similar fate offseason when he and the Bears couldn’t come to agreement on a new deal.

Although Hester turns 32 in November, he led the NFL last season with a career-high 1,436 kick return yards on a league-high 52 tries, and returned five kickoffs for a team-record 249 yards against Minnesota in Week 2 of last season..

With Hester focusing primarily on returns in 2013, it’s likely the team held expectations that he would return to greatness on a more consistent basis.

But in 123 games (46 starts) over eight seasons (2006-13), Hester’s 3,241 punt return yards are eighth most in NFL history and his 12.3 punt return average ranks No. 5. Hester is the club’s all-time leader in total return touchdowns, punt return touchdowns, punt return yards, kickoff return yards (5,504), total kick return yards (8,745) and second in all-purpose yards (11,632).

“Look at what the Steelers have done the last couple days signing Troy Polamalu, Heath Miller, some older guys to a couple more years just so they can retire as Steelers,” Urlacher said. “The Bears could do that with Devin. He should retire a Bear. He set all those records in a Bears uniform and his number 23 should be retired one day in Chicago.

“It’s just the loyalty factor,” he added. “It’s just not there. He should be a guy that retires as a Bear.”

Despite Hester expecting to play for another team in 2014, he would like to retire a Chicago Bear when his playing career comes to a close. In the meantime, Hester would like to reunite with former Bears coach Lovie Smith, who is now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"I look at Lovie as my number one coach right now because he's the one that took a chance on me coming out of the draft," Hester said. "He has all my respect so if he's a guy that is going to shoot at me and want me to come play with him again, my arms are open."

Urlacher believes a potential reunion with Smith would “be a great move” for Hester.

“He had great success from when Lovie was with Chicago,” Urlacher said. “All those returns were when he was his head coach. Anyone leaving Chicago and joining Lovie is a great move. He’s a great head coach and guys know what it’s like playing for him. He has been successful in the league and he’ll be successful down there, as well. I think Tampa would be a great fit for Devin.”

The Bears fired Smith on Dec. 31, 2012, before hiring Marc Trestman as his replacement.
While Chicago's decision to part ways with Devin Hester underscores the sentiment of almost every player out there that the NFL is a tough business, don't feel sorry for him because he's still got plenty of gasp-inducing returns to dazzle you with.

It's just we no longer get the audio gold dug up when Chicago Bears play-by-play man Jeff Joniak calls Hester “ridiculous.”

We no longer have to listen to that ridiculous song “Crank Dat (Soulja Boy)” when Hester lines up to field a punt or kickoff.

[+] EnlargeDevin Hester
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastThe Bears tried to find a place for Devin Hester at wide receiver and defensive back, but it didn't work out.
In the lead-up to free agency, neither general manager Phil Emery nor head coach Marc Trestman ever gave any strong indication the Bears wanted to bring back Hester for a ninth year in Chicago. So the move Wednesday and the corresponding statement of appreciation from the organization on Thursday didn't come as a surprise.

Clearly, Hester isn't the return man he once was. But he's still better than at least 95 percent of his return-specialist peers around the league, which is why some team -- perhaps even Tampa Bay under former Bears coach Lovie Smith -- is sure to snatch up Hester as soon as free agency hits on March 11. In fact, his agent, Eugene Parker, should be waiting by the phone when the negotiation window opens March 8 because he should get plenty of calls looking to add some pop to their return games.

Hester averaged 27.6 yards on kickoff returns last season, and took a punt 81 yards to the house against Washington. In fact, Hester ripped off runs of 20 yards or more on four of his 18 punt returns last season. So clearly, he's still got it. The Bears just didn't want it because of the associated cost paired with the lack of versatility.

A Bears source said on Thursday that Hester is loved and respected within the organization and that “things would be different” for his chances in Chicago if he had a true position on offense or defense. The club tried on numerous occasions over the years to give Hester opportunities to find roles on offense and defense.

Hester was unable to capitalize and counted $2.94 million against the club's cap in 2013, which is too much for a return specialist, regardless of his Hall of Fame résumé.

That shouldn't diminish Hester's legacy, as he's almost a lock to add to it with his next team.

Chalk the situation up to it being one of the harsh realities permeating the business side of the NFL.

Interestingly, Hester's story in Chicago comes almost full circle in a weird way. When the team was in the draft room discussing whether to select Hester in the second round back in 2007, the club's personnel men, like the rest of the league, were hesitant to take a chance on the return man because he wasn't a proven commodity at any set position on offense and defense.

Throughout that process, Smith was open-minded and receptive, which is part of the reason Hester landed in Chicago in the first place.

Perhaps it'll be Smith that gives Hester his next job.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton's recovery from a torn left anterior cruciate ligament has progressed to the point where Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery said on Thursday the club's preference is to re-sign Melton who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent on March 11.

"We do want to bring back Henry and we'll work through that process," Emery said at the NFL combine. "He's made progress. He's made positive progress."

[+] EnlargeHenry Melton
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastHenry Melton collected 13 sacks combined in 2011 and 2012, but played in just three games last season.
Slapped with the franchise tag by the Bears last season ($8,454,725) after posting 33 tackles and six sacks in 2012, Melton started just three games before landing on injured reserve on Sept. 27 -- Melton has 15.5 sacks in 48 career games.

After undergoing surgery and sitting out the final three months of the regular season, Melton has apparently dedicated himself to strengthening his injured left knee over the past couple of months.

"He's in every day early," Bears head coach Marc Trestman said. "He's got to drive in from downtown. If you see him, you'll see that he has been training and he has been working. He's very focused. You'll see he dropped some weight. He looks very good physically right now. Obviously he's in there working the knee, but he's been on time, he's working hard with [Bears head athletic trainer] Chris [Hanks].

"As I said, I spoke with him yesterday for 30-45 minutes and he's committed to getting himself back and he's got work to do to get there, but he's in a very good place right now and we all understand the situation and we'll see where it goes."

The Bears' ability to retain Melton is expected to boil down to money. Considered one of the top defensive tackles scheduled to reach free agency, there is no way of knowing how much other teams are prepared to offer Melton when the new league year begins on March 11.

The Bears find themselves in the same situation with the other unrestricted free agents the organization wants to return, namely quarterback Josh McCown, cornerback Charles Tillman and center Roberto Garza.

While the Bears cannot officially re-sign McCown until the beginning of free agency, the team does hold exclusive negotiating rights with the veteran quarterback and can agree in principle to a new deal. McCown posted the third-highest quarterback rating (109.0) when he completed 149 of 224 passing attempts for 1,829 yards, 13 touchdowns and one interception in eight appearances (five starts).

"I talk to Josh pretty much weekly, or bi-weekly, I've talked to him two or three times anyways and I've texted with him. He's in the loop into what's going on. I've just called him on a personal level just to catch up with him and see how he sees the league and what's going on," Trestman said. "We just like to talk football. He knows exactly where he stands with us. I think that he's going to take his time, see where things are at, when he's ready to say ‘I want to come back,' I know Phil's going to do everything he can and we're going to do everything can to make sure he is."

Tillman, the 2013 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award winner and two-time Pro Bowl cornerback, has publicly stated on multiple occasions that his decision to return to Chicago for a 12th season will be determined by the kinds of contract offers he receives.

Meantime, Garza, a 13-year NFL veteran center/guard, will likely have to accept a one-year, veteran-minimum contract with a relatively low signing bonus to stay with the Bears. However, Garza is a respected team captain and the leader of the team's revamped offensive line that started all 16 games together.

"It's a tough business," Trestman said. "We want Roberto back. He knows we want him back. We believe he should finish his career with the Bears. He does so much in our community. He's such a leader in our locker room. He knows how we feel about him. We just need to let this thing evolve and hopefully it's going to work out best, No. 1 for Roberto, because that's No. 1. And from his standpoint, and it should be, he deserves that respect. And hopefully it will work out for the Bears as well. We certainly want to see him back."

Emery also praised free-agent veteran middle linebacker D.J. Williams who battled injuries for much of last season. Emery sounded as if the door is still open for Williams to return, and if he does, Williams is expected to compete with Shea McClellin, Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene for a starting spot.

"Saw a good football player [in Williams]," Emery said. "Saw a guy that has legitimately very good burst. Saw a player that has good instincts, gets around the ball and plays with a relentless style. We were not displeased with his effort. We were very pleased with where he was going and how he was progressing. Obviously, he had some injuries in camp, he had to get his feet back under him and once he did he started producing at a high level."

Other notable unrestricted free agents for the Bears include: defensive lineman Corey Wootton, defensive tackle Nate Collins, return man Devin Hester, safety Craig Steltz, defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff and cornerbacks Zack Bowman and Kelvin Hayden.

All-NFC North: Chicago Bears

January, 2, 2014
Jan 2
10:00
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» NFC Teams: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South


The Chicago Bears placed three offensive players on ESPN.com's All-NFC North team in Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett and Matt Forte, with one notable exception in Brandon Marshall.

Meanwhile, cornerback Tim Jennings served as the lone representative from Chicago’s struggling defense.

For the record, we nominated both Jeffery and Marshall since they are the NFL’s top receiving duo. They combined for 2,716 yards -- the highest for a receiving pair in franchise history. Despite his pedigree as a four-time Pro Bowler and the fact he’s caught 90-plus balls in two consecutive seasons, Marshall fell victim to the numbers game as Detroit’s Calvin Johnson earned the spot on the all-division team opposite Jeffery. Marshall recorded his fifth 100-reception season, tying him for the most in NFL history.

Interestingly, Jeffery, Marshall and Forte are just the seventh trio of teammates in NFL history to feature one 1,200-yard rusher and two 1,200-yard receivers in a season.

In his second season, Jeffery posted 1,421 yards and seven touchdowns on 89 receptions. Both Marshall and quarterback Jay Cutler have campaigned pretty hard for Jeffery to be named to his first Pro Bowl. It’s almost certain that Marshall will make the Pro Bowl despite the snub on this NFC North team.

Having hit the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the fourth time in his career, Forte has also broken Chicago’s single-season record for catches by a running back (70), a mark he previously set as a rookie.

Bennett, meanwhile, set career highs in receptions (65) and receiving yards (759), while tying a career high in receiving touchdowns (5).

With the way the Bears have performed on defense, Jennings is definitely the only player deserving of All-NFC North mention. His 12 interceptions since 2012 rank second in the NFL only to Seattle’s Richard Sherman (16). Jennings is also one of six players in 2013 to return multiple interceptions for touchdowns, and his three interception returns for TDs since 2012 are tied for second-most in the league over that span.

One of the most notable absences on the all-division team is Bears return man Devin Hester, who tied Deion Sanders' NFL record for return touchdowns with an 81-yard punt return score in Week 7 at Washington. Hester's 2013 campaign has been decent, but Cordarrelle Patterson of the Minnesota Vikings put together a better season than arguably the best returner in NFL history.

Hester, Peppers unsure of futures

December, 29, 2013
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CHICAGO -- Three-time Pro Bowl return man Devin Hester wants clarity on his future with the Chicago Bears.

Hester, who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after earning $2,107,523 in the final year of his contract, hopes to hear in the near future if he fits into the Bears’ plans beyond 2013.

Peppers
Hester
“I really want to know right away,” Hester said following the Bears’ 33-28 loss to the Green Bay Packers. “I am the type of guy, I don’t want to go through the whole offseason not knowing where I am going to be at. I want to retire as a Bear. I put in too much hard work here and did a lot of things around here. I am pretty sure the fans want me back, so who knows.”

One of the organization’s most popular players since he debuted in the league in 2006 as a second-round pick out of the University of Miami, Hester said he’s currently in the dark regarding the Bears’ offseason intentions.

“To be honest, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Hester said. “It really hurts walking off the field knowing that this could be my last time wearing a Chicago Bears uniform. It’s the most hurtful feeling that I have right now. This is where I was born and raised (as an NFL player). It’s not like I played three years somewhere else or six years somewhere else, but I know this is a business.

Everything I had in me I left it all on the field tonight. We just came up short.”

Hester returned a punt 49 yards in Week 17 while also handling five kickoffs for 127 yards. In his first season of being exclusively a return man, Hester finished 2013 with a 27.7 yard average on kickoff returns and 14.2 yard average on punt returns, including an 81-yard touchdown.

He joins a long list of prominent Bears players with expiring contracts. Among the players on the list: quarterback Jay Cutler, cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, defensive lineman Corey Wootton, safety Major Wright, center Roberto Garza, linebacker James Anderson and left guard Matt Slauson.

The future of veteran defensive end Julius Peppers is also in doubt. Although Peppers is under contract through 2015, he is currently projected to count $18,183,333 against the Bears’ salary cap next season. Peppers lead the Bears this year with 7.5 sacks, but he didn’t look nearly as dominant as he had in previous seasons.

“I’m not sure, I don’t know [what’s going to happen],” Peppers said. “I’m in a contract. You’ll need to talk to a decision-maker about that.”

The Bears failed to extend player contracts for almost the entire season until they re-signed kicker Robbie Gould and fullback Tony Fiammatta in the week leading up to the Packers game. General manager Phil Emery is expected to work quickly in the coming weeks to try to re-sign some of his own free agents that he views as long-term parts of the team.

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