Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery and head coach Marc Trestman have both spoken publicly about receiver Devin Hester becoming a return specialist, but they're going to need more from him to warrant giving him a roster spot.
After the season, Emery told the Chicago Sun-Times that Hester would "compete" to be their returner. Trestman went one step further and said he doesn't even know if Hester will practice with the receivers, according to ESPN's Kevin Seifert.
Hester is not and will never be a great receiver, but I don't buy into the thought that he isn't capable of helping the team offensively. With a cap hit of nearly $3 million next season, the Bears need more than kick returns from him.
The legendary return man was once a productive receiver.
He caught 51 passes in 2008 and 57 in 2009. Across those two seasons, he had a 16-game stretch where he caught 76 passes for 957 yards and four touchdowns. Not elite, but enough to show that he is capable of helping the offense.
According to Pro Football Focus, Bears quarterbacks had a passer rating of 80.8 when throwing to Hester in 2008, which was the second best mark on the team. It was better in 2009, when they had a team-best rating of 82.6 on passes in his direction. That rating was tied for 32nd in the league, not far behind Atlanta's Roddy White, but since then it has been a downward spiral.
Over the last three seasons—with Mike Martz and Mike Tice coordinating the offense—the Bears quarterbacks have had an average rating of just 71.2 when throwing to Hester, according to PFF.
So, what happened?
Well, his former position coach, Darryl Drake, seemed to partly blame the coordinators in an interview with The Waddle & Silvy Show in January.
"And I've heard we're going to have 'The Devin Hester Package,' I've heard that for I don't know how many years. And I'm part of it, but I haven't seen it," said Drake. "I look at Green Bay, they have a 'Randall Cobb Package,'" Drake said. "They do things with him. Why can't you do those things with Devin Hester? Why can't you put him in the backfield and bring him out of the backfield?"
I'm not going to say Hester can be an elite receiver or impact the game like Cobb or Percy Harvin, but it's hard to argue that he can't contribute.
Those who say that playing him at receiver limits his effectiveness as a return man haven't adequately researched the topic.
In 2007, he started playing the position and had six combined touchdowns on punts and kickoffs to go with 20 catches.
He didn't return a single kick or punt for a score in 2008 or 2009, but it's hard to say that playing more offense snaps contributed to that.
According to PFF, he was on the field for 650 offensive snaps in 2008 and for 628 in 2009, career highs at that point. In 2010, he played 769 offensive snaps and still returned three punts for touchdowns. In 2011, his snaps dropped to 487, and he returned two punts and one kick off for touchdowns.
If fewer snaps meant better returns, 2012 should have been a great year. He played just 369 offensive snaps—53.1 percent of the team's—but still gave the Bears next to nothing as a return man.
The Bears simply have to find the best way to use him offensively.
In 2011, Joshua Cribbs caught 41 passes while maintaining a kickoff return average of 25 yards and a punt return average of 11.8 yards and leading the Cleveland Browns with 13 special teams tackles. If he could do all that, why can't Hester at least catch passes in addition to his return duties?
It isn't as much about how much they play him as it is about how they use him when he's on the field.
The Bears did a good job early in the season, targeting Hester on 13 passes—32.5 percent of his total for the season—in the first five games. As Drake said, getting the ball in his hands keeps him interested. Running swing passes his way early in the game kept him focused and helped open him up for big plays later, like you saw against Dallas.
It's also worth noting that the long touchdown pass against the Cowboys came off play action, something the Bears did just 16.5 percent of the time Cutler was in the game, according to PFF—which was the 20th highest percentage in the league.
Why the Bears didn't do this more is a topic for another time.
Hester is not a natural receiver but has talent, and a coach's job is to find a way to utilize the talent at hand. If the Bears are saying he can't or won't play any offense, they're wasting his talent and money.
If Hester returns the same number of kicks in 2013 as he did in 2012, his cap hit would be nearly $46,000 per return.
The biggest question about him playing offense is trust.
Jay Cutler does not seem to trust Hester, and it's hard to blame him. Too often they weren't on the same page, and it cost the Bears. That is why the Bears should limit Hester to specific routes, allowing him to play and not think.
If they don't play Hester at receiver, they're leaving themselves dangerously thin at the position. Outside of Brandon Marshall, Earl Bennett and Alshon Jeffery, they have Hester, special teamer Eric Weems and Joe Anderson—who has not played an offensive snap in his career. Unless they spend a high draft pick, the Bears are not deep enough at the position to leave Hester on the sidelines.
Even if the Bears were to add another player, it seems unlikely the Bears would be able to dedicate two roster spots to receivers who don't contribute to the offense.
If Trestman sticks with his plan of limiting Hester to return duties, the Bears should go one step further and release or trade him.
They would be better off keeping Weems, who has two career return touchdowns with averages of 10.4 yards per punt return and 24.8 yards per kick return. He also plays on the kick coverage units and is significantly cheaper.
While his career as a receiver has been disappointing, there's reason to believe Hester can contribute. If the Bears coaching staff and front office feel otherwise, they should just move on. To limit Hester to returning kicks would be a waste of his talent and their money.