After eight seasons with the Bears, Devin Hester appears headed to the free agent market since Chicago made little effort to re-sign the 31-year-old kick returner before free agency opens March 11. Hester has spent his entire professional career with the Bears. In that time, he quickly became a fan favorite, a Hall of Fame candidate and the last link for that franchise to its last period of contending.
But for a while, there was the perception that could be more useful than he was as just a top-flight returner. The team spent years trying to convert Hester into a viable option at receiver with marginal success. Hester’s best statistical year at wideout came in 2009, when he caught 57 passes for 757 yards. Last year, that experiment was finally abandoned in Marc Trestman’s first season as head coach. Hester didn’t even have a single reception.
Hester did, however, remain productive as a returner, leading the league in kickoff return yardage in 2013. Hester also posted his 13th career punt return touchdown, an NFL record. In doing so, he also tied Deion Sanders’ career record with 19 combined special teams return touchdowns.
Hester’s kickoff return for a touchdown to start Super Bowl XLI was probably the most memorable moment from that game, and probably the only thing Bears fans would prefer to remember from that day. It was also, until this most recent Super Bowl, the quickest lead ever posted in a Super Bowl.
Now, in all likelihood, Hester will be playing for a new team in 2014. The market for a 31-year-old return specialist isn’t likely to be overwhelming, especially after moving the kickoff to the 35-yard-line a few years ago decreased the number of chances for returners to make an impact.
Our own Trevor Risk made the comparison of this possibly becoming the equivalent of Dante Hall’s sad final two seasons with the Rams. I would argue that Hester has more to contribute at this point and it’s hard to imagine him not drawing any interest in free agency. Still, Bears fans are already despairing at the possible sight of him setting another record in a different uniform.