Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NFC South [Print without images]

Thursday, March 20, 2014
Will NFL rules hold Hester back in Atlanta?

By Vaughn McClure

Statistically speaking, he’s the greatest return man in NFL history. But will NFL rules keep Devin Hester from having a dynamic impact with the Atlanta Falcons?

Hester, who recorded an NFL-record 18 kick return scores in eight seasons with the Chicago Bears, agreed to a three-year contract with the Falcons Thursday. The 31-year-old Hester brings with him 8,745 career return yards and the type of elusive ability -- even at this age -- the Falcons have been lacking in the return game.

Devin Hester
The Atlanta Falcons have agreed to terms with kick returner Devin Hester on a three-year contract.
The Falcons last had a kick return for a touchdown in 2010, when current Chicago Bear Eric Weems returned both a kickoff and a punt for scores.

However, the NFL seems intent on squeezing the dynamic of at least the kickoff return out of the game for safety reasons. Hester has five career kickoff returns for touchdowns, not including his 92-yard touchdown on the opening kick of Super Bowl XLI. But he has just one since the NFL decided to move kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35.

Since the change was implemented in 2011, league-wide touchbacks have soared. In 2010, before the rule, there was a 16.4 percent touchback rate, according to ESPN Stats & Information. It jumped to 43.5 percent the next year, to 44.1 in 2012 and to 48.8 percent last season.

And now there is a proposal to move the ball up to the 40-yard line, which the owners will vote on soon. Such a change might drain Hester of his kickoff return powers. Then again, former Bears special-teams coach Dave Toub allowed Hester to go as deep in the end zone as needed to return kicks. Unfortunately, the elements won't hold the ball up inside a dome.

The Falcons are counting on Hester to make an impact, regardless of the rules or conditions. Hester worked exclusively as a returner for the Bears last season and averaged 27.6 yards per kickoff return and 14.2 yards per punt return. As a team, the Falcons averaged a respectable 24.4 yards on kickoffs last season with Jacquizz Rodgers as the primary returner. They averaged just 8.3 yards per punt return with Robert McClain, Harry Douglas and Robert Alford.

Every yard counts when you’re talking about field position.

Teams will shy away from punting to Hester, for sure. They did so when he played for the Bears, although he still returned 13 punts for scores, including one last season against the Redskins for 81 yards. That return tied him with his mentor, former Falcon Deion Sanders, for the most return scores in NFL history.

Hester, a three-time Pro Bowl returner, was told he would be used in "creative" ways, so expect to see him on offense, as well. He had some decent years as a receiver but couldn’t mesh with Jay Cutler’s personality, leading to a diminished role on offense.

Those days are in the past. Hester has plenty of "swagger" left in him. At the start of free agency, he told ESPN.com he viewed Atlanta as a possible landing place to prolong his career, since he’ll be playing inside the Georgia Dome. Now it’s just a matter of him getting enough opportunities to show he still has it.