Only five teams in the NFL started with worse field position than the Atlanta Falcons did last season. So the Falcons on Thursday did something to fix that by signing former Chicago Bears kick return specialist Devin Hester, according to Adam Schefter of ESPN.
Former Bears return specialist Devin Hester agreed to terms on a 3-year deal with the Atlanta Falcons, per ESPN source.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 20, 2014
Hester ranked sixth in the league in 2013 with an average of 27.6 yards per return on kickoffs and returned more kicks (52) for more yardage (1,436) than any return specialist in the business. He only returned 18 punts with an average of 14.2 yards per return. He ranked fourth on the punt return list of specialists with at least 10 returns.
Hester’s numbers last year were far superior to anyone Atlanta had returning kicks. Jacquizz Rodgers averaged 23 yards per kick return and only returned 25 kicks for 575 yards. Robert McClain was the Falcons’ best punt return specialist last season. He averaged 10.2 yards per punt return and returned 19 for 193 yards.
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It’s obvious adding Hester will work wonders for the Falcons, who as ESPN.com reporter Vaughn McClure noticed haven’t had too many explosive returns happen lately.
Falcons last had a punt/kickoff return for a touchdown during the 2010 season.— vaughn mcclure (@vxmcclure23) March 20, 2014
Big plays are fantastic, and the Falcons will sure take any that Hester provides. But where this move by Atlanta will pay off is in starting field position.
According to Football Outsiders, the Falcons ranked 27th in the league in starting field position last season. Their average line of scrimmage was just past the 26-yard line, 26.23 to be exact. If Hester is 4.6 yards better than Rodgers in kick returns and four yards better than McClain in punt returns, Atlanta may be starting a little past the 30-yard line in 2014.
An improvement like that would move Atlanta from the bottom of the league in starting line of scrimmage to near the top. Last year only three teams had a starting line of scrimmage beyond the 30-yard line: the Kansas City Chiefs (32.74), the San Francisco 49ers (31.56) and the Seattle Seahawks (31.28). All three of those teams made the playoffs, and the Seahawks hoisted the Lombardi Trophy.
So yes, starting field position is important. It’s especially important for a head coach like Mike Smith, who plays the field position game like a chess match, sometimes to the detriment of his team. Hester should turn some of Smith’s decisions to punt into Matt Bryant field goals. Or better yet, with better field position, Smith might attempt to go for more fourth-down tries in 2014.
It’s easy to see that the Hester signing should do wonders for the Falcons offense. But this move doesn’t come without a few possible gray, storm-like clouds.
The first question to ask: How much did Atlanta spend on Hester? The financial terms haven’t been disclosed yet, but Hester was asking for $4 million per year, according to Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com. According to Over The Cap, Atlanta has just less than $10.1 million in salary-cap space. If the Falcons spent $4 million of that on Hester, this move turns from sunshine and sand castles to cold rain and hail.
Another issue with Hester’s signing is his age. Hester will turn 32 during the season, and his elusiveness has deteriorated in recent years.
Devin Hester: 12 PRs for TDs in first six years, 1 TD in the last wo. Four KOR TDs in first two, one in seven since.— Jeff Schultz (@JeffSchultzAJC) March 20, 2014
There’s also the impending vote for moving the kickoff line again. There is a proposal that the owners may soon vote on that could move the kickoff line from the 35-yard line to the 40. If that happens, Hester’s value drops dramatically as he wouldn’t be able to return nearly as many kicks.
When it comes to rules changes, age or the financial details of this signing, there are many things to worry about. But if the kickoff line stays put, and the Falcons didn’t overspend, Hester’s ability to greatly improve Atlanta’s starting field position will surely help the offense score points.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.
Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.