Bears reboot: 'New' Hester needs to run like the old one

Bears reboot: 'New' Hester needs to run like the old one

July 20, 2013, 4:00 pm
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In the wake of the 2013 free agency, draft and offseason work at minicamps and OTAs, CSNChicago.com examines where the Bears have gone and where they will be going when training camp convenes in late July. Last of a series.

The recap:  It was a quirky 2012 season for Bears special teams, one in which many of the apparent positives came with caveats or qualifiers moving forward.

Under former coordinator Dave Toub, special-teams in 2012 finished eighth in the Gosselin ranking system, the comprehensive evaluation collection of 22 statistical categories. It marked the seventh straight year and eighth in the last nine in which the Bears have been top 10.

But the No. 8 rank also tied for lowest in the last seven seasons.

Devin Hester owns the fifth-best punt-return average (12.1). But his 2012 average of 8.3 yards marked the second straight year with a decline, this time to barely half of his 16.2 of 2011. The result was that he ended the season on something of a roster bubble, relinquishing any role as a receiver in the offense, and commanding a $1.8 million base salary with declining production.

[OFFSEASON: Urlacher upset at how negotiations were handled]

Adam Podlesh punted for a 39.4-yard net average, second only to his 40.4 yards in 2011. His 34 punts inside opponents’ 20-yard line ranked fourth in the NFL, and his 25 fair catches forced stood fifth.

Yet the Bears were auditioning punters during the season and while Podlesh is a virtual certainty, the Bears were not pleased enough to stop looking at alternatives.

Toub left for Kansas City and a spot on Andy Reid’s new Chiefs staff and the Bears hired Joe DeCamillis from the Dallas Cowboys. Not insignificantly perhaps, DeCamillis was with the Jacksonville Jaguars when they drafted Podlesh.

DeCamillis is tasked with keeping a strong area strong. That will involve the annual process of restructuring coverage units, which have their top five tacklers all returning: Eric Weems (12), Zack Bowman (11), Blake Costanzo (11), Anthony Walters (10) and Sherrick McManis (10).

Kicker Robbie Gould converted 21 of his 25 field goal attempts. Gould underwent minor offseason leg surgery but was back at practice before the close of practices in the spring. He is working on a string of 10 straight from 50 yards or longer, dating back into 2010, and he is tied for third most accurate kicker in NFL history with an 85.6 percent success rate.

Issue No. 1:  Hester

Coach Marc Trestman left little doubt that Hester’s roster spot is not a given, that Hester would be competing for a job. Hester has had little to do in practice, so occasionally he has taken a rep at cornerback, even defensive tackle, in the no-hitting work.

He has said all the right things about the end of his work at wide receiver. “They want to see me do well, whatever it takes to bring this Bears team back to the return game we used to have,” Hester said. “They want that, really, really want that, and they told me, ‘we know what you’re good at, what you’re great at, and let’s get it back to where it was.’”

[MORE: Secondary playing for new contracts]

More important, the Bears are saying right things about him.

“He’s got a very positive mindset and he’s looking forward to contributing in the role as a returner and everything looks very good,” said GM Phil Emery. “He’s definitely gotten his feet back under him and he’s got a smile on his face. He’s all in to what he’s doing.”

Hester is a central figure, not because of his price necessarily, but because he represents the best chance for the Bears to have a truly threatening return game.

Hester ranked just 22nd with his 8.3 punt return average and had only five returns longer than 20 yards, none for scores. He had zero kickoff returns longer than 40 yards and only seven longer than 20 yards.

He has had zero kick returns for touchdowns in three of his last four seasons.

[WATCH: Will Urlacher's comments hurt Emery's reputation?]

The problem is that the Bears have no one even close to Hester, who turns 31 in November. Weems has had success in kickoff returns but averaged just 17.8 yards on his 13 KOR’s last season.

The four punts fielded and returned by other than Hester (Weems, Earl Bennett, Zackary Bowman, D.J. Moore one each) were brought back a total of two yards.

The Bears will audition various young speedsters for the return jobs. But how likely they are to surpass even a diminished Hester is suspect at best.