For the first time in his NFL career, Devin Hester will play for a franchise other than the Chicago Bears. The longtime return specialist, who spent eight seasons with the Bears, agreed to a three-year deal with the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday, officially culminating his career in the Windy City as expected:
The Falcons later confirmed the deal on the team's Twitter account:
The writing has been on the wall with Hester and the Bears for months. Chicago did not attempt to engage the four-time All-Pro in serious contract-extension talks during the regular season, and it seems management was perfectly happy to let him walk afterward as well.
NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported at the beginning of March the Bears had not contacted Hester's representatives to engage in contract negotiations.
Hester expressed guarded interest in staying with the Bears, but seemed resigned to leaving. As the team's season ended in disappointment, Hester indicated to reporters he would like to know as soon as possible—but had no control over the situation:
I really want to know right away. I am the type of guy, I don’t want to go through the whole offseason not knowing where I am going to be at. I want to retire as a Bear. I put in too much hard work here and did a lot of things around here. I am pretty sure the fans want me back, so who knows.
The Bears' response was radio silence. General manager Phil Emery offered a compliment to Hester's season at the scouting combine, but it was about as guarded and tepid as one could give for someone who has meant so much to the franchise.
“He was productive,” Emery said. “He was a productive kick returner. He did a good job.”
Hester, even as the Bears used him entirely on special teams, remained effective in 2013. He led the NFL with a career-high 1,436 yards on kick returns, adding 256 yards and a touchdown on punts. While most of the distribution on those return yards were due to the Chicago defense cratering down the stretch, Hester is still a very good if not quite at his peak form as a returner.
The Bears finished 11th in Football Outsiders' special teams metric and have typically ranked among the best in the league since Hester's arrival. Last season was the first time of Hester's career Chicago didn't finish among the 10 best special teams, though it should be noted Football Outsiders also considers punting and kicking in that metric. Hester has been the overarching, consistent reason, though, and the Bears will struggle to duplicate his production.
As for what Hester brings to Atlanta, that's uncertain. There is always a symbiotic relationship in long-term player/team marriages that gets ignored when a player moves on. Just as the Bears will miss Hester, he will miss the familiarity of being with the same franchise. Even during a regime change, the Bears knew what to expect from Hester, and vice versa.
Now, any two-way leeway is out the door. Atlanta isn't going to be as patient with Hester's foibles. His tendency to take kicks out of the end zone other return men wouldn't usually take created a positive result, but watch out for the reaction the first time Atlanta starts on the 15-yard line because of one of those decisions.
With Hester essentially rubber-stamped as a nonentity offensively as well, he'll need to prove himself early in camp. If there's one undying truth in the career of a return man, it's that there is always someone younger and a little faster waiting to take your spot. Eight years ago, that young man was Hester.
In 2014, Hester will be trying to stave off those youngsters and prolong his career. And he'll be doing it outside of Chicago for the first time in his NFL career.
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