Even though he never played the wide receiver position at any level before giving it a go in the NFL, Devin Hester has done pretty well as a pass catcher and might have challenged the 1,000-yard plateau in 2009 if not for a late-season calf injury.
However, the Bears were hoping the mesmerizing moves Hester put on display his first two years in the league as a return man would make him a threat to score every time he reeled in a pass, but instead he averaged just 13.3 yards per reception – identical to teammate Earl Bennett, who is more of a possession target. Hester only scored three touchdowns through the air, tied with third-string tight end Kellen Davis for fourth on the team. His long gain was a respectable 48 yards, although Bennett recorded a 71-yarder and rookie Johnny Knox came through with a 68-yarder.
Not only has he now gone two full seasons without scoring on a punt of kickoff return, something he seemed to do every other week earlier in his career, but he is not a classic burner and can't beat enemy cornerbacks deep consistently.
Scout.com has confirmed that Clemson receiver Jacoby Ford had an official meeting with the Bears leading up to Saturday's Senior Bowl in Mobile.
Since he might be the fastest player at the Scouting Combine next month and is all but guaranteed to run somewhere in the 4.2s, Ford brings a lot of excitement to the mix both as a receiver and a return man. His junior and senior years for the Tigers were nearly identical statistically, averaging 56 catches for 745 yards and five touchdowns, but he wasn't able to fully put his return-man skills on display because of the presence of teammate C.J. Spiller, who is one of the greatest returners in the history of college football and will be a first-round pick this April. While he's a smaller target and doesn't have the best ball skills, he can make tacklers miss and runs tougher than his size would suggest.
The 5-9, 181-pound Ford is currently Scout.com's No. 15 receiver prospect for the 2010 NFL Draft.
JC's Take: Realistic Bears fans knew Hester was never going to develop into a No. 1 in this league, no matter what coach Lovie Smith said publicly, but his lack of big plays has been a bit surprising.
Rarely is Hester just blowing by corners and getting open on long routes, and despite countless opportunities with former offensive coordinator Ron Turner calling it way too often, he hasn't been able to wiggle free on those quick screens and break loose from the first wave of defenders. One of the things that made Hester so special in the return game was that he didn't have to think too much, as he simply waited for a block, made a few moves and then exploded for the end zone once he hit daylight. Playing receiver is much more complicated, and all that mental processing – where to line up, which pattern to run, recognizing coverages, adjusting routes on blitzes, making plays on the ball in flight – has compromised his ability to score on his own.
Ford doesn't have the makings of a No. 1, which is what this passing game truly needs, but the Bears have to take a closer look at what they're doing with Hester, too.
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John Crist is the Publisher of Bear Report and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.
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