Is Devin Hester Still the NFL's Scariest Return Man?

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Is Devin Hester Still the NFL's Scariest Return Man?
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A legitimate argument can be made that the Atlanta Falcons' Devin Hester is the greatest special teams player in NFL history.

Arguing against that idea may be tougher.

The first record to fall was the combined special teams returns for touchdowns. Hester set that with his 14th in 2010. One year later, in 2011, Hester broke the record for punt return touchdowns with his 11th. Just this past season, Hester tied Deion Sanders' record for total return touchdowns with 19.

Considering that Hester doesn't play defense like Sanders did, that is quite a spectacular feat.

Furthermore, Hester ranks first among active players in yards per punt return, 18th in yards per kick return and 15th in all-purpose yards. Four of his 55 career 20-plus-yard punt returns came during last season, while two of his 19 40-plus-yard returns came in 2013.

Hester is a 31-year-old, three-time All-Pro.

Of all those facts, the most important one is his age. Hester's success throughout his career has primarily been built on his speed. Now, he is unlikely to be as effective as he was during his prime. That is simply the nature of his position.

Therefore, the question engulfing Hester entering this season is whether he is capable of being effective with his new franchise.

The Falcons believed in Hester enough to give him a contract with $3.5 million guaranteed, seemingly a substantial amount of money for a player who won't be expected to contribute on offense or defense. Conversely, the Chicago Bears let Hester leave after eight seasons likely because they didn't believe he was worth that much money.

It's now down to Hester to prove that he can still be the difference-maker he was when he brought back that kickoff for a touchdown in Super Bowl XLI.

Player Kick Returns Yards Average Touchdowns
Cordarrelle Patterson 43 1,393 32.4 2
Knile Davis 10 321 32.1 1
Dwayne Harris 28 857 30.6 0
Quintin Demps 33 992 30.1 1
Leon Washington 16 481 30.1 0
Jeremy Ross 15 439 29.3 1
LeGarrette Blount 17 494 29.1 0
Jacoby Jones 31 892 28.8 1
Trindon Holliday 28 775 27.7 1
Devin Hester 52 1,436 27.6 0
Jordan Todman 26 712 27.4 0

NFL.com

Hester has been a very good kick returner throughout his career, but he has never been a special kick returner. Last season, he had more returns than anyone else in the league, but he didn't have a touchdown return, and his average was some distance behind that of Cordarrelle Patterson.

Hester had an impressive five 40-plus-yard returns, tied for second with Quintin Demps. However, Patterson led the league with 10 returns of 40 or more yards, and he had two touchdowns, more than anyone else in the NFL.

It's clear that Hester wasn't the most intimidating kick returner in the NFL last year.

Patterson was.

Player Punt Returns Yards Average Touchdowns
Jeremy Ross 15 243 16.2 1
Tandon Doss 23 359 15.6 1
Marcus Sherels 22 335 15.2 1
Devin Hester 18 256 14.2 1
Antonio Brown 32 409 12.8 1
Dwayne Harris 20 256 12.8 1
Jacoby Jones 19 237 12.5 0
Micah Hyde 24 296 12.3 1
Ted Ginn 26 316 12.2 0
Dexter McCluster 58 686 11.8 2
Travis Benjamin 22 257 11.7 1

NFL.com

Hester was one of the better punt returners in the league last year, but he had the fewest returns of his career due to a combination of the Bears' terrible defense and opponents avoiding kicking to him. Hester had four 20-plus-yard returns and two 40-plus-yard returns, but his overall numbers were warped by his limited opportunities.

Both of the above charts include the top 10 players who had at least 10 returns in their respective category. Cordarrelle Patterson was clearly the most dangerous player of the group, but he didn't have a single punt return during the season. He finished the year with a sole fair catch.

Outside of Patterson, other players who could claim to be the most dangerous returners in the league are the following:

 

Percy Harvin

Harvin had just one kick return during the regular season because he missed most of the year due to injury. That return went for 58 yards against the Minnesota Vikings. In the Super Bowl, Harvin brought the opening kickoff in the second half back for an 87-yard touchdown.

Those were his only two returns of the year.

 

Travis Benjamin

The Cleveland Browns' youngster had 22 punt returns for 257 yards, an 11.7-yard average, but he also had a 79-yard touchdown return. Benjamin returned only three kickoffs all season, but he averaged 48.7 yards per return, highlighted by an 86-yarder.

 

Antonio Brown

The Pittsburgh Steelers' star wide receiver only had one kickoff return for 16 yards, but he led the league in 40-plus-yard punt returns, finishing the year with five.

The next closest returner had just three.

Punt returns of over 40 yards are very difficult to come by. Only eight players in the league had more than one last year.


 

Competition for the most dangerous returner in the NFL is tough right now. A past-his-prime Hester may simply not have enough left in the tank to compete with players like Patterson, Harvin, Benjamin and Brown.

That's not to say that Hester's not still a very good returner, though.

NFL.com

Hester's lone touchdown return during the 2013 season wasn't the most impressive of his career. It was primarily a result of terrible discipline from Washington's coverage, but Hester did have to evade a tackler after he caught the ball and show enough speed to run behind his convoy of blockers down the opposite sideline.

There was a time when Hester was the kind of talent who incited fear in the opposing team's coverage so much so that punters would avoid letting him catch the ball at all costs.

Last year Hester was still one of the best punt returners in the NFL, but he is now more reliant on the effectiveness of his blocking against the coverage of the opposition. Hester can take advantage of space, but he is less likely to make multiple defenders miss on his way to the end zone.

Hester will likely go down as the greatest special teams player in history when his career is over. He will definitely be considered the best returner in history. However, that's not who he is at this stage of his career.

He is not the NFL's scariest return man.

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