BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- It’s not easy to be Green. Been that way since 1983, when Roy Green became the last NFL player to make the transition from kick returner-defensive back to Pro Bowl wide receiver. That was 28 Bears starting quarterbacks ago.
Despite the odds, at least one person stakes his reputation that Devin Hester will turn back the clock this season, and he has seen the Bears wide receiver on the field more often than anyone lately.
“We should expect Devin to be great,” wide receivers coach Darryl Drake told me earlier this week.
Drake didn’t say “good” or “very good,” mind you. The coach said “great,” and the word came out of his mouth so emphatically that you wanted to believe him.
“That’s a quantum leap, but that’s what I expect Devin to be,” Drake said. “I expect him to be great because he has great ability.”
Athletic talent is what Hester and Green have most in common. Like Hester, Green was a sprinter in college. In 1979, the St. Louis Cardinals drafted him out of Henderson (Ark.) State in the fourth round. After two years as a full-time kick returner, part-time cornerback, he began to take a turn at wide receiver early in the 1981 campaign, when injuries left the team short on numbers.
In their first two seasons at wide receiver, Green (65 receptions, 1,161 yards, seven touchdowns) and Hester (71, 964, five) put up comparable numbers. In 1983, his third year there, the 26-year-old Green experienced a breakout season—78 receptions, 1,227 yards, 14 TDs. At 26, Hester is about to enter his third season at the position.
Is it realistic to believe that Hester will follow a similar career path and emerge as a legitimate No. 1 receiver?
“Realistic, no question,” Drake said. “There’s no question that he has that ability. I will be highly disappointed if he isn’t that. I don’t see why he can’t be. I really don’t.”
Any faith in Hester begins with his sub-4.3 speed and quickness. Elite receivers are required to execute more than screens and fly patterns, however, and that’s an area in which Hester has made “unbelievable” improvement to hear the coach tell it. Whereas Drake provided a critique and encouragement after passes aimed at the young receiver in recent years, he doesn’t hear his own voice nearly as much anymore.
“This is not like it was two years ago or even last year,” Drake said. “Most of the time when I came back to him after a play, I would say, ‘Good job’ or ‘Great route’ or ‘Good feel’ or ‘Great instincts.’ There’s not a lot of that going on anymore.
“With all receivers, there’s always something that has to be coached whether it’s this technique or that technique. But with Devin, it has been very seldom. Like with any young guy, it’s just being out there and playing, seeing pass coverages, understanding and adjusting.”
The organization has another reason to set the bar higher than ever. One year ago, when Hester was offered $15 million in guaranteed money as part of a contract extension, the front office did so with the expectation that he would become much more than a lethal kick returner in the near future.
The contract is worth $40 million if Hester meets bonus criteria based on receptions, yardage and the like in the final two years of the agreement, which extends through the 2013 season.
Hester took a step forward last season, when he caught 51 balls, more than double his output of the previous season. Yet while there’s reason to be encouraged about his progress, the jury in league-wide circles remains out about his potential as a No. 1 receiver.
Hester checks in at 5'10'' and 185 pounds, hardly the ideal size for a primary target. There’s also some question about whether he has the focus and discipline to become a dependable go-to guy, doubts that linger after he dropped a few balls in the early days of preseason camp.
By comparison, at 6', 195 pounds, Green had the physical strength and durability necessary to withstand the rigors of the marathon season. Plus, Green had the benefit of more extensive game time in the secondary—in 1981, he became the first NFL player to catch a pass and intercept one in the same game in 24 years—a perspective that allowed for a smoother transition to the other side of the ball.
While Hester took a step forward at the position last season, his yardage (13.0 per reception) and touchdown (three) totals weren’t commensurate with his outrageous athletic ability. The most obvious reason for the shortage of big plays was the absence of a strong, accurate arm to stretch defenses on a regular basis.
At the same time, Hester lacked the instincts and fundamentals necessary to find open spaces in the secondary consistently.
Now that strong-armed quarterback Jay Cutler on board, the deep game has one fewer excuse for failure. Drake believes a more polished and confident Hester will answer the second part of the equation.
“If you’re at practice, you see him make a lot of plays,” Drake said. “The quarterback throws to him, and he makes the catch. He’s where he’s supposed to be. He understands routes and those things. His route-running is already as good as anybody I’ve been around.”
Even if Hester turns to be no more than No. 1A in the order, then 60-something catches, 1,000-something yards, and upward of 10 touchdowns would appear to be legitimate goals. Drake is so convinced about the guy, though, he won’t paint the future by numbers.
“I expect him to be great. I really do,” Drake said. “And Devin expects to be great. If greatness is that next step . . . I know great is a big term, but in my mind, I expect him to be a difference-maker.”
In which case, Roy Green finally will have company after all these years.