It was in 2007 the Chicago Bears made the fateful decision to shift Devin Hester from cornerback to wide receiver. Hester was coming off a rookie campaign in 2006 in which he scored six times on kick and punt returns, including the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLI.
A return specialist and part-time cornerback in college at Miami, former Bears head coach Lovie Smith chose to make Hester a full-time starting wide receiver. For six seasons, Smith insisted that Hester was a No. 1 wideout but the results never matched the hype. Hester topped out in 2009 with 57 catches for 757 yards and 3 scores but faded rapidly the next three years, totaling just 49 catches in 2011 and 2012 combined.
In accordance, Hester's production as a returner also took a big hit. Running 40 routes on offense each game appeared to sap him of his big-play ability on kick and punt returns, eventually turning one of the greatest return men in the league into just another guy.
Hester is 31 and is set to hit free agency. Should the Bears bring him back for one more season or cut ties with the club's special team fixture the past eight years? We weigh the pros and cons of re-signing Hester.
Upon taking office this past offseason, coach Marc Trestman immediately relieved Hester of his duties on offense and made him the team's return specialist. This rejuvenated Hester. In 2013, he led the league in kickoff returns (52) and kickoff return yards (1,436). His 14.2 yards per punt return was third best in the NFL and his 27.6 kick return average was the second highest of his career.
In Week 2, Hester broke the franchise record for most kickoff return yards in a game (249). In Week 7 against the Washington Redskins, he returned a punt 81 yards for a touchdown, which tied him with Deion Sanders for the NFL all-time lead in return scores (19). A few weeks later, Hester returned another punt for a TD but the record-breaking score was called back due to a penalty.
Even at 31, Hester still showed much of the same burst and field vision that made him a three-time Pro Bowler during his career. When you consider his age and the fact Dave Toub coached in Kansas City last year, a case could be made that last season was Hester's finest in Chicago.
Hester is no longer the lightning quick burner he was coming out of college and now relies more on experience to beat opposing coverage units. He also has a maddening tendency to run backward on punt returns, which often results in lost yards and field position.
Historically, NFL return men do very little after they turn 30. Hester is one of just a handful of players in league history to score on a kick or punt return at 30-plus. He'll be 32 before the season ends in 2014, so it's safe to assume his best days are well in the past.
Hold ‘em or Fold ‘em?
In his prime, there has never been a more dangerous or explosive returner than Devin Hester. For years, Hester touching the ball on a kick or punt return was must-see television. Every time he stepped on the field, there was the potential for him to score.
Hester showed a lot of heart last year but he's just not the player he once was. If history is any guide, his production will continue to snowball downhill. GM Phil Emery didn't give Hester a vote of confidence in his post-season press conference.
"First you've got to give him credit for the year that he had and we'll work through it," Emery said last month. "Once you have a big cut as you do with a quarterback contract, it affects all the others. That doesn't mean you can't reward them for their efforts. It just means you have to think it through. You have to work through it. It has implications not only now but in the future. That process takes some time."
For his part, Hester said he wants to finish his career in Chicago.
"I really want to know right away. I don't want to go the whole offseason not knowing where I'm going to be at," Hester said after the season finale. "Hopefully we can get something done. I want to retire as a Bear. It really hurts walking off the field knowing that this could be my last time wearing a Chicago Bears uniform. That's the most hurtful feeling that I have right now."
The reality is there are younger, faster and cheaper players throughout the NFL and in this year's draft class who could produce at a similar level to Hester - the majority of which can also contribute on offense or defense. Hester is a one-dimensional player who has lost a step and will cost at least $855,000 next year (the minimum for a nine-year veteran).
As great as he once was, the Bears have to move on from Hester and find their return man of the future.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com 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.