The Chicago Bears will not be re-signing dynamic return man Devin Hester, ending the 31-year-old veteran's eight-year tenure with the team.
Jeff Dickerson of ESPN Chicago originally reported the news:
To all my Chicago people...I can't thank you all enough for my time in Chicago. I've always said I wanted to retire a Chicago Bear but sometimes things don't work out the way we would like. Chicago will always hold a special place in my heart and if I am fortunate enough to break the return record, we will have all broken it together...no matter where I am. Thank you again and God Bless.
This confirmed the four-time All-Pro's suspicion that the Bears would let him walk this offseason, as he expressed in an NFL Network interview on Wednesday.
“From my knowledge, I know that Chicago wants to go a different route with me,” said Hester, per the Chicago Tribune's Dan Wiederer. “All I can say is thanks to the fans (for) the support. Always been great to me, always been loyal. I couldn’t want to play for a better city than those guys.”
The Bears later confirmed the move via a release on the team website:
For the past eight seasons we have been honored to have Devin Hester as a part of our organization," Bears general manager Phil Emery said in a statement. "While Devin has redefined the pinnacle standard of the return position in the NFL, the memories and contributions he has given us cannot be measured by stats or numbers.
"Not only is Devin a special player, he is also an exceptional person. He is a great teammate, husband and father. Devin represented the organization off-the-field as well as he did on it. When his career is over, he will always be a welcome member of the Bears family. We thank him for his dedication and wish him and his family all the best.
As lethal as Hester was when fielding both punts and kickoffs, he never quite fit in as a wide receiver. He was excluded entirely from the Bears offense in 2013 under first-year head coach Marc Trestman, relegated to just return duties.
With blazing speed, ridiculous field vision and uncanny agility, Hester has carved out an impressive legacy for himself and will be seriously considered for the Pro Football Hall of Fame despite his lack of success as an offensive playmaker.
Dan Woike of the Orange County Register wished Hester well, alluding to the famous call from when Hester returned the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLI for a touchdown:
As far as what lies ahead for Hester, he hinted in the NFL Network interview that a reunion with former Bears and current Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith could be in the cards, per Wiederer:
I look at Lovie as my number one coach right now. Because he’s the one that took a chance on me coming out of the draft. He has all of my respect so if he’s a guy who is going to shoot at me and want me to come play with him again, my arms are open.
Tampa Bay seems like a plausible destination. With the competitiveness and talent featured in the NFC South, the Bucs could use playmakers any way they can get them. Big-splash plays on special teams can galvanize an entire team, and Hester is fully capable of still providing those, as demonstrated with his 19th career return touchdown in 2013.
Eric Edholm of Yahoo Sports threw out another interesting possibility: the New England Patriots. Edholm cited coach Bill Belichick's fondness for Hester when he entered the pros out of the University of Miami:
Other suitors should emerge for Hester, whose age and limited skill set will probably mean that teams will be focusing on low-cost deals as he hits the free-agent market. That also makes him a minimal risk who could net massive returns on a modest investment.
Perhaps Hester will even get another chance to shine as a receiver. Although he never clicked in Chicago at the position, it's important to bear in mind the schematic turbulence the Bears endured during his time there. A slew of different offensive coordinators and a lackluster receiving corps defined Chicago's offense. Only when the team drafted Alshon Jeffery and acquired Brandon Marshall in 2012, then brought in Trestman in 2013, did everything really start clicking on a more consistent basis.
Unfortunately for Hester, Marshall and Jeffery morphed into one of the premier receiving duos in the league, which left him little room to contribute as it was even if Trestman hadn't cast him off.
If there are one or two seasoned, established receivers on Hester's new team, it's feasible that his talents could be used as a more integral part of an offense as a wideout.
At the very least, though, Hester's characteristic explosiveness as a return man should land him at a new NFL destination soon enough. At least that's the hope, because Hester is among the most exciting players in recent league history when he's at his best.