NFL Nation: Devin Hester

Packers can't dodge Devin Hester

December, 6, 2014
Dec 6
10:00
AM ET
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- For four years, Julius Peppers would do the same thing every time the Chicago Bears would force an opponent to punt.

"It was an event when they got ready to punt the ball; you got up and you went to the sideline to look," said Peppers, who played for the Bears from 2010-13 before he signed with the Green Bay Packers this offseason. "You wanted to see what was going to happen."

[+] EnlargeDevin Hester
AP Photo/John BazemoreDevin Hester has proven this season with the Falcons that he's still a force in the return game.
Peppers will probably do the same thing Monday night when the Atlanta Falcons come to Lambeau Field, but this time he'll be holding his breath that his former teammate, Devin Hester, doesn't post his 15th career punt return for a touchdown.

Both left Chicago following last season after the Bears let them walk. Hester signed with the Falcons nine days after Peppers joined the Packers.

"He's happy down there," Peppers said. "He's found a new life."

In Hester's third game with the Falcons, he returned a punt 62 yards for a touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to set an NFL record with the 20th touchdown return of his career. It was his 14th punt return for a touchdown. He also has five kickoff returns and one field goal return for touchdowns.

He has two punt returns for touchdowns against the Packers, including the very first one of his career -- an 84-yarder on Sept. 10, 2006, at Lambeau Field. The other was a 62-yarder on Sept. 27, 2010, at Soldier Field. The Packers lost both games.

"I was looking forward to not having to play him when he left Chicago," Packers special-teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. "And he were go."

And from what Slocum has seen, little has changed in the 32-year-old Hester.

"You can look at his production; he’s had big plays, [and] they're leading the league in punt returns," Slocum said. "I think that says it all. This will be game No. 18 for myself facing him and same thing with [veteran special-teamer] Jarrett Bush."

Not that Slocum is counting or anything.

"I don't [count], but a guy as good as Devin's been, I'm well aware of when we have to face him," said Slocum, who rattled off the eight seasons of twice-a-year regular-season games against Hester and the Bears plus the 2010 NFC Championship Game.

However, this is game No. 17 against Hester because he actually missed one of those -- the 2009 meeting in Chicago -- because of a calf injury.

The Packers have not allowed a punt return for a touchdown since Sept. 8, 2011, when Darren Sproles brought one back 72 yards while playing for the Saints, but this could be Hester's last shot at the Packers.

"It's going to be great to see him," Peppers said. "Hopefully he doesn't return one on us."
 

A lot has changed for the Atlanta Falcons since their 56-14 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in September.

In that Thursday night game, they looked like Super Bowl contenders. But the Falcons haven't won since. They've lost five straight and look like a team that's falling apart.

Not much has changed for the Bucs. They're 1-7 and in sole possession of last place in the NFC South. ESPN Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas and ESPN Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure examine the matchup of two of the league's most disappointing teams:

Yasinskas: Vaughn, I'm sure you could write a book on what's gone wrong with the Falcons. We don't have the space for all of that here. In a quick synopsis, what happened to the Falcons?

McClure: The problems have been across the board, Pat. The coaching hasn't been adequate, as was evident with clock-management issues in the game against Detroit in London, when the Falcons blew a 21-0 lead. The offense hasn't been nearly as explosive as anticipated, with Matt Ryan uncharacteristically more off target than usual and his receivers dropping passes.

The defense can't generate pressure up front, which has allowed opposing quarterbacks to extend plays and come up with big gains, particularly on third down. And a telling stat to me is that the Falcons have been outscored 84-24 in the fourth quarter. They need improvement across the board, and I just don't see much reason for optimism in the second half, save for this game against the Buccaneers.

The Falcons destroyed the Bucs in Week 3. Could we see another blowout or have the Buccaneers made enough strides since then?

Yasinskas: I wouldn't rule out another rout -- though I think the Bucs will at least play Atlanta closer this time. That hunch has more to do with the Falcons' struggles than it does with anything the Bucs have done.

The Bucs seemed to be making strides a few weeks ago. Then they lost big to Baltimore at home. That game was even uglier than the loss to Atlanta. Coach Lovie Smith keeps saying his team is making strides and I tend to agree with him, but Tampa Bay hasn't done enough to win.

I know Atlanta owner Arthur Blank had high expectations and he's not the most patient guy in the world. How hot is coach Mike Smith's seat right now?

McClure: It's scorching hot right now, which is somewhat hard to believe considering the Falcons were 13-3 two years ago and in the NFC Championship Game. But as Blank moves forward with his plans to open a new stadium in 2017, he wants a consistent winner to occupy the building. And the Falcons have been consistently bad the last two seasons.

Smith is known for being a nice guy, and fans would tell you that they're fed up with that approach. And Blank is trying to appeal to the fan base. So it's going to take a dramatic turnaround for Smith to save his job. I don't even think just making the playoffs in a bad NFC South would be enough for him. But I'm sure Smith will continue to approach the job in a professional manner. And I don't see Blank making a move until after the season, unless the Falcons lose big in Tampa.

The Falcons will have to contend with Josh McCown on Sunday, and he struggled in the first matchup between the teams. What is the benefit in going with McCown over Mike Glennon at this stage?

Yasinskas: I don't know that McCown is any better than Glennon. In fact, I think Glennon has done good things and has shown poise behind a bad offensive line. McCown didn't look too good in the first three games of the season. But he was Lovie Smith's hand-picked quarterback and they were together in Chicago. More than anything, though, I think the hope is that going with McCown will provide a spark for an offense that hasn't gotten into rhythm at all this season.

Speaking of quarterbacks, I have always been impressed by how efficient Ryan is -- but that's not the case this year. What has gone wrong?

McClure: First and foremost, you have to look at what has happened along the offensive line. The Falcons lost left tackle Sam Baker to a season-ending injury in the preseason, tackle Lamar Holmes to a season-ending foot injury and starting centers Joe Hawley and Peter Konz to season-ending ACL injuries. So Ryan is playing behind a patchwork offensive line.

Ryan has seen a number of his receivers, including top target Julio Jones, drop catchable passes. But Ryan has made his share of poor throws, including arguably the worst interception of his career, a momentum-changing play against the Lions. After the way he sliced up New Orleans in the season opener, Ryan looked well on his way to a Pro Bowl-type season. But he got humbled along the way, particularly on the road. And Ryan hasn't been able to throw consistently down the field.

Remember, Ryan did find Jones for a long touchdown in the first game between these teams. Will the Bucs' defense be able to put the clamps on Jones, Roddy White and Devin Hester or are there too many defensive holes?

Yasinskas: Tampa Bay's defense ranks No. 31 overall, which is shocking and disappointing when you're talking about a team coached by Lovie Smith. The Falcons certainly have enough talent and speed to cause problems in the passing game. The Tampa 2 defense has taken a lot of criticism with people saying it's outdated. But Smith believes in the scheme and refuses to change.

 

Rapid Reaction: Chicago Bears

October, 12, 2014
Oct 12
7:30
PM ET

ATLANTA -- A few thoughts on the Chicago Bears' 27-13 win over the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome.

What it means: The Bears stayed within a game of the division lead by defeating Atlanta and evened their record to 3-3, which was important given the way the schedule unfolds. Playing five of the first seven on the road before the Nov. 2 bye, the Bears needed stay at or above .500. After the bye, just three road games remain among the final eight. That will be huge for Chicago with the weather starting to turn.

Stock watch: Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker’s stock rose in this game because he didn’t let the absence of his starting linebackers affect the game plan as the defense carried the team in the first half. Lance Briggs, D.J. Williams, Shea McClellin and Jonathan Bostic all sat out with injuries, forcing the Bears to use Khaseem Greene, Darryl Sharpton and Christian Jones in the starting lineup.

All three put together solid outings, especially Greene and Sharpton.

As for Tucker, he called an aggressive game that helped the Bears limit the Falcons to just 98 yards and 1-of-5 on third-down conversions in the first half.

Speed against speed: Chicago’s struggling special-teams unit neutralized Devin Hester's effectiveness in the punt return game, and recent signee Teddy Williams deserves much of the credit. A gunner on the punt team, Williams was usually the first defender in Hester’s face when he fielded punts. Williams didn’t make the tackle every time, but he made contact or impeded Hester’s progress to allow other defenders to make the play.

Punter Pat O’Donnell helped too, by booming his attempts end over end, resulting in shorter punts with more hang time that allowed the coverage team to converge.

Hester is typically one of the fastest players on the field, but the Bears had a secret weapon in Williams, who didn’t even play football in college at the University of Texas-San Antonio because he was pursuing a track career.

Williams won nine conference titles in various sprints in college, and set records in the 55-meter dash, 60-meter dash, 100-meter dash and the 200.

Game ball: Marc Trestman weathered questions about his ability to deal with the in-game adjustments of opponents in the second half and grumblings from his top receiver wanting the ball -- not to mention criticism regarding the quarterback’s penchant for committing devastating turnovers. Trestman rallied the team to perhaps its most complete performance of the season when things could have easily gone the other way. Jay Cutler, Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall were all candidates, but Trestman deserves this one.

What’s next: The Bears begin preparing on Wednesday at Halas Hall for Sunday’s home game against the Miami Dolphins.

Rapid Reaction: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
11:39
PM ET


ATLANTA -- A few thoughts on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 56-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome on Thursday night.

What it means: Hey, maybe Greg Schiano wasn't so bad after all. At least the Bucs usually were in games when he was coaching. That was never the case for Lovie Smith's crew Thursday. They were down 21-0 after the first quarter and it just kept getting worse. The Bucs seemed to take a big step backward after being close in Smith's first two games. Their defense was horrible and you can't use the fact that All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy was out with a hand injury as an excuse. The offense was dismal and the special teams allowed a Devin Hester punt return for a touchdown. Losses don't come much more thorough than this one. The Bucs are 0-3 and they're showing no signs that would give their fanbase any hope.

QB controversy? After throwing an interception that was returned for a touchdown, quarterback Josh McCown left the game in the second quarter with a thumb injury. Second-year pro Mike Glennon took over for McCown. Glennon didn't fare much better. But the way this season is unfolding, you have to wonder if the Bucs will do something dramatic to try to shake things up.

Stock watch: Vincent Jackson has been one of the better wide receivers in the league in recent years, but he's off to a slow start this season. Jackson hasn't been able to get open deep and hasn't made any big plays. His hands also have been an issue. Jackson dropped a pass that would have gone for a first down. He did have a touchdown catch in the fourth quarter, but that was long after the game had been decided.

Fantasy advice: Stay away from Bobby Rainey. He lost two fumbles. As soon as Doug Martin gets healthy, I think we'll see Rainey disappear.

Game ball: This is a required category, so I've got to go against my instincts and give someone on the Bucs a game ball. I'll go with linebacker Danny Lansanah, who had a fourth-quarter interception return for a touchdown. That was about as close to a bright spot as the Bucs had.

What's next: The Buccaneers play at Pittsburgh on Sept. 28.
CINCINNATI -- The war of words between the Cincinnati Bengals and Atlanta Falcons has already started, and it doesn't look like it's going to end anytime soon.

So don't be surprised if Sunday afternoon at Paul Brown Stadium if the two teams play with an edge that's uncommon for an early season, cross-conference matchup like this one.

[+] EnlargeAdam Jones
Patrick Semansky/Associated PressAdam Jones has been engaging in a war of words with Atlanta's Devin Hester this week.
Brace yourselves, ladies and gentlemen, for a chippy game.

For the past two days, boastful barbs have been lobbed back and forth between the locker rooms as players on both teams have used the media to state their case at positional supremacy. Primarily, it's been two of the four men in Atlanta's talented receiving corps who felt compelled to respond to one of the players who will be charged with stopping them. Bengals cornerback and punt returner Adam Jones levied the first blow in this verbal battle on Wednesday.

"He's a good returner," said Jones about Atlanta's receiver/return specialist Devin Hester, "but he's not better than me. He played more games than me, way more games than me. I don't feel like there's anybody better than me when I'm right there. I've said that a long time before now."

Hester has an NFL-record 18 combined kick-return scores in 124 career games, including an NFL-record 13 punt-return touchdowns. Jones has five career punt-return scores in 85 career games. Last week, Hester had a kick return for 21 yards and gained a yard on a punt return. Jones had one punt return for 45 yards.

In the career sense, Hester was right. So how did he respond?

"Every return man is going to try and compare himself to me," Hester told ESPN's Vaughn McClure in Atlanta on Thursday. "That's just the way it is. If you look at the stats, I'm on the top of the list. So everybody, when it's time to play me, is going to try and want to be the next Devin Hester."

Added Falcons receiver Roddy White: "Oh my God. You're talking about a Hall of Famer and then [Jones]. I don't even know how many Pacman's got. It's like apples to oranges, man. Devin, everybody knows what he can do in the return game."

Even if they tried to laugh them off, the two Falcons clearly weren't happy with Jones' remarks.

Atlanta's cornerbacks might not like what Bengals receiver A.J. Green said Thursday while noting the considerable height difference between he and the cornerbacks who will go up against him. Green said, "those guys are chippy, man. Chippy little guys, like little gnats."

At 6-foot-4, Green is athletic with tremendous leaping ability. His likely matchups, Robert Alford and Robert McClain, are 5-10 and 5-9, respectively. The best way to beat them, Green said? To be physical.

It's much the same kind of physicality he said was necessary to handle Falcons safety William Moore, a "big, physical linebacker [type of] safety." Green said that when Moore is on the field a receiver or tight end must always be aware of where he is.

See? There's respect here despite all the mid-week trash talk. Players on both teams train together in the offseason, and their coaches have crossed paths several times before. Green also makes Atlanta his home in the offseason, and has been revered in the area since starring at Georgia. An East Point, Georgia, native, Jones also has strong ties to the area.

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said it best when describing the relationships on both teams.

"I've got a lot of friendships with a lot of people, but this week we're competing," Lewis said. "We can go back to being friends next week again."

The players might be friendly at the end of Sunday's game, but this early war of words gives them reasons to be anything but during it.
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.
New Atlanta Falcons return man/receiver Devin Hester didn't shy away from his original asking price.

Hester
Hester sought $3 to $4 million per year once the Chicago Bears didn't re-sign him and he hit the open market. Had the Tampa Bay Buccaneers reached that figure, Hester probably would be preparing to return kicks for a different NFC South team this coming season.

Instead, Hester got his $3 million per year in a three-year contract with the Falcons that included a $2.5 million signing bonus. Here's how Hester's contract breaks down by year:

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.

Devin Hester agreed to a three-year contract Thursday with the Atlanta Falcons, finally ending an exhilarating run as the man who re-wrote the record book as a return man in Chicago.

Hester
Known locally as The Windy City Flyer, Hester deserved more time with the Bears. But the direction the club is headed, coupled with the fact it could not afford to pay top dollar for a return specialist without a true position forced Hester and the Bears to part ways.

When Chicago finally sees Hester again in Atlanta this season, it will finally truly experience and come to know the fear it had put in opponents for so many seasons with No. 23 lined up deep. While it's obvious the Bears felt Hester is no longer the player he once was, it's a safe bet special teams coach Joe DeCamillis plans to place the his unit on high alert for what might take place if the group allows for even the slightest sliver of daylight.

Maybe Hester truly isn't the same returner he once was. But even with him supposedly experiencing a down season, my guess is at least once throughout the season, somebody in the stands at a game in 2013 held their breath for a second or two when Hester fielded a punt or a kickoff. That's the type of anticipation and excitement Hester brought to the return game in Chicago.

For those thinking he's lost it, look no further than the Oct. 20 game against Washington as evidence he hasn't. In that game, Hester broke a punt return for an 81-yard touchdown. A little more than a month prior to that contest, Hester ripped the Minnesota Vikings for a franchise-record 249 kickoff return yards; a feat that will likely be tougher to accomplish in the future with the NFL considering moving kickoffs to the 40, which will result in more touchbacks. It's also important to note all the big returns Hester broke in 2013 that were called back as the result of penalties.

Hester averaged 27.6 yards on kickoff returns last season, and reeled off gains of 20 yards or more on four of his 18 punt returns.

So clearly, Hester still possesses electricity in his game.

"For the past eight seasons, we have been honored to have Devin Hester as a part of our organization," general manager Phil Emery said back when the Bears announced they would not be re-signing Hester. "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."

Instead, Hester will now provide all that for the Atlanta Falcons fan base.

In 123 games (46 starts) over eight seasons, Hester's 3,241 punt return yards rank No. 8 in NFL history and his 12.3 punt return average is good for fifth. Hester is Chicago's all-time leader in total return touchdowns, punt return touchdowns, punt return yards, kickoff return yards (5,504) and total kick return yards (8,745) and is second in all-purpose yards (11,632).

The numbers will only continue to grow in Atlanta, and you can count on an innovative mind such as Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter deploying Hester on offense in creative ways; an experiment Chicago failed to execute successfully despite numerous attempts.
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.

[+] EnlargeDevin Hester
Rob Tringali/SportsChrome/Getty ImagesThe 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.
The Atlanta Falcons have to find a way to corral one of most elusive players in the game.

Record-setting return man Devin Hester visited Atlanta on Tuesday, and all indications were he stayed overnight to mull over a chance to play with the Falcons. The Miami product wasn't re-signed by the Chicago Bears, allowing him to walk into free agency.

Hester
Hester previously told ESPN.com Atlanta interested in him. But home is Miami, which is why Hester recently said he would love to play for the Dolphins.

But that's probably not the key team in the equation. Hester has an obvious tie to former Bears coach Lovie Smith, now the new head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Hester is close to members of the Bucs' staff and probably wouldn't pass up an opportunity to be reunited with Smith and the others.

That is why the Falcons have to move quickly if they want to keep Hester from having an impact elsewhere -- particularly within the NFC South. His price range reportedly has been between $3 million to $4 million per year. He made just over $2 million last season with the Bears.

The players obviously want Hester in the building. Receiver Roddy White tweeted about showing Hester around the weight room and hoping he would sign. Safety William Moore was all smiles when Hester's name was mentioned during a football camp for mothers in the Atlanta suburbs on Tuesday night.

The signing of return man Javier Arenas on Tuesday should have no bearing on Hester's status. Arenas is being looked at more as a competitor for the nickelback role who is capable of returning punts and kicks. Hester would be the primary return guy, if signed.

It will be interesting to see how this all pans out. The 31-year-old Hester isn't the same player he was in his 20s, but he's still is a dynamic return man. Playing inside the Georgia Dome for half the season should only help his cause.
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 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
Mar 10
10:00
AM ET
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.

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