2014 NFL Free Agency: Falcons Add Hester Despite Talks Of Moving Kickoffs Forward

2014 NFL Free Agency: Falcons Add Hester Despite Talks Of Moving Kickoffs Forward
Bears receiver Devin Hester is pushed out of bounds by Falcons cornerback Brent Grimes just short of the goal line after a catch and run in the third quarter as the Chicago Bears defeated the Atlanta Falcons 30-12 in the season opener September 11, 2011 at Soldier Field. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Congratulations to Devin Hester for finding a new team, but in 2014 he might not be as effective as he was once simply due to NFL rules.

The nine-year pro, who spent his first eight NFL seasons with the Bears, signed a three-year, $9 million deal ($2.5 million guaranteed) with the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday. The Falcons might also be preparing to use Hester as a receiver as well as a return man after as well.

However, with the possibility of kickoffs moving forward to the 40-yard line, Hester’s value as well as other special teams phenoms would be greatly diminished as soon as this season.

The NFL Competition Committee announced on Wednesday that owners will vote at next week’s league meeting on whether to move kickoffs up again only three years after moving forward from the 30-yard line to the 35.

Since that rule change, Hester has averaged 25.1 yards per kickoff and returned one for a touchdown.

Hester and the Falcons will host the Bears next season in a conference matchup. The three-time Pro Bowler has 20 career return touchdowns including 13 punt return touchdowns, which is an NFL record.

Counting the 108-yard missed field goal Hester took back for a touchdown against the New York Giants in 2006, he has 19 regular season return scores, tying him with his mentor Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders. Also, the spectacular 92-yard kickoff return to open up Super Bowl XLI, which gives him 20, an NFL record.

The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Hester led the league in kickoff returns yardage in 2013, adding 1,436 yards on 52 run backs for an average of 27.6 (second-best of his career). He also averaged 14.2 yards per return, taking one back 81 yards for a score against the Washington Redskins in Week Eight.

Even at age 31, the former University of Miami product still has some magic left in the tank on returns. However, with the NFL looking into making the game safer. The movement of the kickoff up to the 40-yard line would result in much more touchbacks and could setup a future talk of ridding the kickoff entirely from the game.

Hester, a former 2006 second-round pick has played in 31 games on a turf field in his NFL career.

By the numbers

Turf: 23.2 yards per KR, 9.18 yards per PR

Grass: 25.1 yards per KR, 13.6 yards per PR

Overall: 24.8 yards per KR, 12.3 yards per PR

In those 31 games on turf, Hester also has three kickoff return scores along with a career long of 97 yards on turf. He’s also brought back two returns on punts, along with a long of 64 yards.

His best career game on turf came in 2006 during his electric rookie season. Hester totaled 246 yards on five returns and took back two kickoff returns for scores in a 42-27 win over the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome.

So for those of you saying that the turf field will aid the aging Hester, the numbers prove otherwise. His career success on punt returns on grass is dramatically better and his kickoff return numbers there are slightly better.

The so-called sloppy Soldier Field certainly didn’t slow Hester down a bit in his time in the windy city.

Can the Bears replace Hester?

The Bears have a couple of in-house options to replace Hester. Second-year back Michael Ford enjoyed success at LSU in his final season and receiver Chris Williams, who the Bears signed late in the season.

The 5-8 Williams has been on three practice squads since entering the league as an undrafted free agent out of New Mexico State in 2009. He spent played for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL from 2011-2012, averaging 21.0 yards per kick return and 13.3 yards per punt return. Williams added six total return touchdowns, including five punt return scores in 2012.

It sounds as if Ford could end up as the kick return man, while the speedy Williams will carve out as a role as the main punt returner.

Besides playing Hester on the road this upcoming season, the Bears will also play Julius Peppers and the Packers, Josh McCown’s Bucs and Henry Melton’s Cowboys at home. The 2014 week-by-week NFL schedule will be released sometime next month.

 

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