For Chicago Bears fans, it must be a strange image. Gone are the days when Hester brought you to the edge of your seat every time he stepped on the field to return a kick or punt. Those are now distant memories.
The problem for the Bears is that no player has stepped up to claim Hester’s role. The club has a number of potential replacements, players who will battle it out in training camp for the right to be Chicago’s starting returner.
During veteran minicamp, coordinator Joe DeCamillis outlined what he’ll be looking for during the team’s three weeks on the campus of Olivet Nazarene University.
“The first thing is returner mechanics,” DeCamillis said. “You want a guy who can make all the catches. You want a solid punt return guy that can square up his body, make sure he makes the right decisions, because that’s really the biggest part of being a returner is making the right decision, in my opinion.
“Then the second thing is the talent with the ball in his hand. If you can identify a guy that can make plays in open space, that’s really what you are looking for. And it happens in different ways. Devin had great speed, that’s why he was good. And there’s been other guys that have excellent vision and they’re good, so you just have to find what that guy is good at and try to tailor the scheme towards him.”
Let’s break down in detail this competition, which will play out in Bourbonnais in less than three weeks.
Late last season, the Bears made a Week-17 roster move that received little attention. The club signed Chris Williams, who spent the last three seasons in the Canadian Football League. Williams is a former 2009 undrafted free agent who has spent time on the practice squads of the Dolphins, Browns and, most recently, the Saints.
He has yet to log an NFL snap but Williams was an accomplished returner during his three years as a member of the Hamilton Tiger Cats. In 2012, he returned six kicks for touchdowns, which set an all-time single-season CFL record.
Williams is lightning quick and has blazing speed. He ran a 4.28 40-yard dash during his pro day and told me during minicamp that wasn’t even his fastest time. That speed showed up on the practice field this offseason, as Williams is by far the fastest player on the roster.
His biggest hurdle is his size (5-7, 175), making him also the smallest player on the roster. It’s hard to imagine Williams taking a big hit from a 250-pound linebacker with a full head of speed and getting up. If he proves durable, though, Williams should win this contest.
While his size could hurt him in the injury department, his low center of gravity makes him exceptionally quick on his cuts. Williams explodes from a stand still and is at full speed almost immediately. His burst and straight-line speed will make him a homerun threat every time he touches the ball.
The Bears signed Domenik Hixon this offseason as one of the main competitors for the returner role. He unfortunately tore his ACL during the first practice of OTAs and is out for the season.
Spurlock (5-10, 214) is a 30-year-old journeyman who has played for seven different teams in seven NFL seasons. He’s returned 81 career punts (9.6 avg.) and 107 kick returns (24.2 avg.). In 2013, he played 10 games for the Detroit Lions, averaging 6.6 yards on 22 punt returns and 22.5 yards on 15 kick returns.
Edwards has 40 career punt returns (7.0 avg.), 32 of which came in 2012, and 15 career kick returns (19.7 avg.). He hasn’t accomplished much in his career but he does have good speed, running a 4.41 at his pro day in 2010.
Spurlock and Edwards were immediately inserted into the punt and kick return rotation during OTAs and minicamp, where they’ll likely stay throughout the preseason.
Most forget the Bears already possess a Pro Bowl kick returner in Eric Weems. For the Atlanta Falcons in 2010, Weems recorded a 12.8-yard punt-return average and a 27.5 kick-return average, with four combined touchdowns, earning him his first trip to Hawaii.
Since joining the Bears, Weems has seen very little action in the return game, returning just one punt and 18 kicks the last two years combined. With Hester on board, Weems was just a backup, but he now gets a true shot at earning the starting gig.
Weems is a tough, experienced returner who was very dangerous in his prime. He doesn’t have great speed but he’s intelligent, shifty and has good field vision. He recently turned 29, so he should have plenty of tread left on his tires. If he hasn’t lost his burst, Weems could emerge as the club’s starting returner.
Projected Winner: Chris Williams
Williams needs to show he can take the pounding of the NFL game. We won’t know until the preseason if he’s capable of withstanding the size and speed of most professional special teams players. He must demonstrate an understanding of how to take hits in a manner that protects his body, and when to get out of bounds or dive when a return breaks down.
If he takes too many hard, nasty looking hits in the preseason, it won’t matter if he gets up or not, as it will show his vulnerability. Eventually, one of those collisions will lead to injury. For a player of his size, he has to eliminate as much contact as possible.
If he shows durability during Chicago’s four preseason contests, Williams will emerge the starter. He’s just too dangerous with the ball in his hands to pass up. Weems is going to make the team either way, as he has value at multiple positions on special teams, so he’ll be waiting in the wings as Williams’ backup. It’s an ideal scenario, with a savvy veteran backing up a big-play youngster.
If Williams can’t take the pounding, Weems will likely emerge the starter. Edwards and Spurlock will get plenty of opportunities to show their worth but neither has been all that impressive throughout his career.
The Bears’ offense should be very good this year, so the team doesn’t necessarily need big returns on every kick. Someone who can make solid decisions and get positive yards is the ideal candidate, which is where Weems’ experience will come into play.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth 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.