Bears Training Camp Preview: 4 Days

Can Devin Hester once again be a dominant kick and punt returner for the Chicago Bears now that he's been stripped of his duties as a wide receiver in Marc Trestman's offense?

The Devin Hester experiment, one in which former Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith tried to convince the world Hester that was a No. 1 receiver, never truly paid off. He had two fairly productive seasons in 2009 (51 catches, 665 yards) and 2010 (57 catches, 757 yards) but during the last six seasons, Hester has annually failed to live up to his No. 1 billing.

And he had his worst season as a receiver in 2012, catching just 23 passes for 242 yards and 1 TD. Toward the end of the season, he was an afterthought on offense, playing just four total snaps at wide receiver the last two games combined.

During his time as a wide receiver, Hester never appeared to grasp what's necessary to get open on a consistent basis, while his hands were always sketchy at best. His speed was an asset but his lack of strength made him almost invisible against physical defenders in press coverage.

The burden of trying to be a weapon as a receiver also took its toll on Hester the return man. During his first two seasons, when he was hardly used as a wideout, he racked up 11 regular-season punt and kick return TDs. The last four years combined, he has just six return scores. He's been electric at times the past few seasons but overall, he's been a disappointment. In particular, his penchant for running backward can be maddening to watch.

New Bears head coach Marc Trestman is fully aware of the failed Devin Hester experiment and put an end to it almost immediately after taking the job.

Devin Hester
Tim Fuller/USA TODAY Sports

"Devin is going to focus on being our returner," Trestman said after the first practice of the offseason. "He's got to be the returner for him to be here. And once that's locked in to place, which we expect that it will, then we'll see where it goes from there.

"We made a collective decision organizationally. I talked to the guys who have been here. [GM] Phil [Emery] and I had a long conversation about it as well and just talking to Devin, let him get back to doing what he does best first. And once that's all in place we'll see if we need to, or if we're in a position to incorporate him in doing more things.

"He'll spend all of his time with [special teams coordinator] Joe [DeCamillis]. So when we're in an offensive meeting, he'll be with Joe. He'll be with [long snapper] Pat [Mannelly]. He'll be with Robbie [Gould] and the kickers. And he'll be spending time totally focused in on being the best returner in the national football league."

With Hester no longer burdened by the responsibility of learning a new playbook and weekly offensive game plans, can he once again be the kick and punt returner he was earlier in his career?

One of the biggest factors to consider is Hester's age; he'll be 31 in Week 9 this season. Historically, the production of prolific return men in the NFL drops off considerably after the age of 30.

Yet the best returners didn't just disappear after that age. In fact, Brian Mitchell and Deion Sanders both scored four return TDs after 30. I think most would agree that Hester has been equally as dominant as those two great returners, so the window for productivity hasn't yet fully closed.

Last season, Hester struggled mightily as a punt returner. He averaged just 8.3 yards per punt return, after averaging 16.2 yards in 2011 and 17.1 yards in 2010. He must improve in that area if he's going to make the team this year. But as a kick returner, Hester was actually very good in 2012. His 25.9 yards per kick return was the third best average of his career, while his 19 returns of 20-plus yards were the second most of his career. So he hasn't completely lost it yet.

Hester heads into training camp as the club's No. 1 kick and punt returner, but he has no other value than that. During offensive and defensive drills, Hester stands on the sidelines and watches. With all of his energy focused on being a returner, and his legs fresh from not having to run 30-50 routes every practice and game, there's a good chance Hester could squeeze out a few more memorable seasons.

That's the plan, and considering how ineffective he was as a receiver, it makes a lot of sense. Yet it could also cause Hester, who at the end of last season questioned whether or not he wanted to continue playing football, to completely lose interest. If that happens, and it shows during training camp, Hester may not be long for the roster.

Chicago already has a Pro Bowl kick returner in Eric Weems, so it may not make sense to keep two players whose only value is in the return game. Usually, one of those will do. As a result, for the first time in his career, Hester heads to Bourbonnais unsure of whether he'll be a part of the final 53-man roster. It will be interesting to see if he'll use that as motivation or if training camp this season will be the final act in a memorable Bears career.

Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.

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