Different teams see different things in different players. Nothing breaking about that news. But what the Atlanta Falcons are envisioning for Devin Hester is worth a little closer look, because it has a possible echo back toward the Bears.
The Falcons signed the gold standard for returners to a three-year deal and up in the range of $3 million for 2014. This at a time when the NFL is flirting with returning the kickoff launch point to the 40-yard line (remember that? Where they used to start from in until 1974, when they were moved to the 35, then back to the 30 in 1994, and back to the 35 in 2011.)
Moving the kickoffs to the 40 further minimizes the chances and conversely needs for kickoff returners. So why then would the Falcons pay Hester 50 percent more than the Bears did last year on the brink of using him even less?
Two notable points here: Very knowledge NFL insiders believe in the number “3” with Hester. Specifically, the Falcons are said to have concluded that if Hester breaks a total of three major kick returns, that will literally translate into three wins. Hence perhaps, the convenient $3 million for his payday.
But there is another kicker and that lies in their plan to utilize him on offense. The reason that didn’t happen last year with the Bears, according to more than one member of the team, was that Jay Cutler simply didn’t like or trust him as a receiver and with the other options available, Cutler was just not going to throw him the ball. There was some thought that Hester as a No. 5 receiver, playing special teams too, was a natural if unpolished speed threat, something the offense didn’t really have. If the quarterback likes you, you’re Dane Sanzenbacher and can stick around a little while. If he doesn’t like you, you’re Hester.
The Falcons and Matt Ryan don’t have preconceived negative notions, and between Julio Jones and Roddy White, they have their equivalents of Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall.
Hester may not have been a good answer at wide receiver, but he quietly scored a touchdown once every 15.5 passes he caught. Marshall, one of the NFL’s elite, scores on one of every 12.5. Jeffery is scoring on one every 11.3. Wes Welker, on the other hand, makes the scoreboard with one out of every 17.5 of his catches.
The point is not that Hester belongs in the discussion with any of those others. But he arguably does belong somewhere other than just returning punts, and the Atlanta Falcons aren’t paying him $3 million this year for only that.