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Wednesday, March 3, 2010
Untouchable is unthinkable

By Melissa Isaacson
ESPNChicago.com

Most general managers, regardless of the sport, will tell you that a good trade is one that works out well for both teams.

Devin Hester
With three other receivers to plug into Mike Martz's system, Devin Hester might be expendable.

But how many times does that happen?

The biggest fear for any GM is that a player he traded will reach new heights in another uniform, or show a dimension his team never quite got out of him. Chicago clubs are familiar with this phenomenon, and the Bears are especially vulnerable given their poor track record of developing players.

But looking forward to this offseason, they can't be afraid to pull the trigger. In addition to the Bears' free-agency wish list -- a priority for any front-office staff on a short leash -- they must improve over past performances in the draft room. And particularly in a year in which the team lacks a first- or second-round choice in a draft rich with talent, Jerry Angelo must look hard for opportunities to get some extra picks.

Clearly, this is not a team with a ton of trade value. Lance Briggs, Jay Cutler and possibly Brian Urlacher are pretty much it in terms of first-round potential return. With Friday looming as the first day of trading in the NFL, Bears tight end Greg Olsen, a former first-round pick, is obvious trade bait if Angelo can get a second-round pick in return. But why stop there? Sure, Olsen is a good candidate as an awkward fit in new offensive coordinator Mike Martz's system, and a player -- while highly skilled -- who has not yet wowed anyone in Chicago in his first three seasons. But how about Devin Hester? His name has been floated before and typically met with resistance by Bears fans as a player who has wowed us, and who still appears to have untapped potential as a receiver. Like Olsen, however, Hester is expendable.

I never thought I'd write that, and even while advocating the Bears see what they can get for Hester, there is every reason to believe that it's a move that could come back to haunt them.

That said, Angelo has to see what he can get in return for Hester, and anyone offering a second-round pick should be forwarded the paperwork before hanging up the phone. And given the fact that Angelo has never had a deep appreciation for wide receivers, believing from the time he didn't want to pay Bobby Engram that bodies can be pretty much plugged in at the position, this shouldn't be a problem.

As a receiver, Hester showed just enough growth this season to merit enough interest there. And as a returner, it is unlikely anyone has forgotten his Hall of Fame-caliber 11 combined career kick returns for touchdowns, fourth-best in NFL history, though none coming after December of 2007.

When Martz was first hired by the Bears, the generously listed 5-foot-11 Hester said he envisioned himself in the role of five-time Pro Bowler Torry Holt, while Martz seems to see him more in the nonstarting slot position of 5-foot-10 slot receiver Az-Zahir Hakim, who was also the team's punt returner.

During the 1999 Rams' Super Bowl season, Hakim caught 36 passes for 677 yards and eight touchdowns. Holt, a 33-year-old free agent who the Bears passed on last year, recently said he'd love to play under Martz again. Holt caught 53 passes for 788 yards and six touchdowns in '99, but went on to have six consecutive seasons of 1,300 yards receiving.

But Martz liked the matchups and mismatches inside that Hakim commanded and could see Hester's speed taking advantage of those as well, while also advocating that Hester see more action on special teams. And on "The Waddle & Silvy Show" on ESPN 1000 last month, Hester said if he had to cut back on his receiving and become more of a returner, that would be fine with him.

The problem is that when Hester signed his four-year, $30 million extension, it was as a starting wide receiver with bonuses tied to being a No. 1 pass-catcher. Financially, the Bears still need Hester to become a No. 1 receiver, and Hester would benefit as well.

But here's the thing. Though Hester had a solid 2009 season despite year-end injuries -- 57 catches for 757 yards and three touchdowns -- there are now three solid Bears receivers for Martz to plug into his system with Earl Bennett, Devin Aromashodu and Johnny Knox. And we still don't know enough about Juaquin Iglesias to make a definitive judgment.

In the return game, both Bennett (with a 10.2 punt return average and one touchdown) and Knox (29.0 kickoff return average, one touchdown, just off the NFL lead and a late addition to the Pro Bowl as a returner) had better results last season than Hester (7.8-yard punt return average and a 22.3-yard kickoff-return average). And they're more than capable going forward. Danieal Manning also had a respectable 26.6-yard average on kickoff returns.

The fact that Hester seems so willing all of a sudden to go back to the return game almost suggests a sense of uncertainty himself.

Hester would not be easy to part with. Selecting him in the second round of the 2006 draft, Angelo initially took some criticism for taking a player without a position. But while Angelo looked like a genius when Hester took the opening kick of Super Bowl XLI 92 yards for a touchdown, and the South Florida product has established himself among the all-time great Bears performers, if he can bring a top draft pick or even a midrounder and a solid offensive lineman, then it is worth saying goodbye.

It could actually work out well for all concerned.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.