Wednesday afternoon, Chicago Bears return man Devin Hester posted on his Facebook page a message that indicated he would not be returning to the team. This was followed on Thursday by Bears GM Phil Emery announcing as much. Hester hits free agency, and the Bears will not make an effort to bring him back.
As soon as this came out, 49ers fans immediately began talking about attempting to sign Hester. He is one of the greatest returners of all time, if not THE greatest. He returned a punt for a touchdown, but because it was his first return touchdown since 2012, people talk about his down year. His punt return numbers were down, but even still he averaged 14 yards per punt return. He only had 18 punt returns, so he is not listed among return men, but among punt returners with double digit returns, he ranked fourth. More importantly he had the best season of his career returning kicks. He averaged 27.7 yards per return, which was good for fifth in the NFL.
I spoke with Dane Noble from Windy City Gridiron to get his thoughts on Hester as a return man:
Hester had that *one extra* gear for a few years that really put him over the top in speed. It does seem like he's lost just a tiny bit of that over the last 2 seasons, but he's still one of the top returners in the league.
Watching him over the years, it seems like his field-vision comes and goes, or maybe just his confidence and decision-making, but he definitely has been inconsistent at times.
As a pure returner, he can still flip field position at the blink of an eye, and while the TD's might not be as plentiful as years past, he can still be a difference-maker.
While Hester still presents a threat, I would be surprised if he ended up on the 49ers roster in 2014. I say that for a couple of reasons. The first is that his first choice would appear to be a reunion with Lovie Smith, his former head coach.
Hester: "Tampa, 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."— NFL Media PR (@InsideNFLMedia) March 6, 2014
Hester: "He has all of my respect so if he’s a guy that is going to shoot at me and want me to come play with him again, my arms are open."— NFL Media PR (@InsideNFLMedia) March 6, 2014
I could see the 49ers potentially kicking the tires just to see what kind of money it would cost, but it's easy to overlook the fact that LaMichael James did some good things as the 49ers primary return man. He had a few hiccups along the way, but once he took over for Kyle Williams, LMJ showed what he could do in space. He finished 10th among qualifying punt returners, averaging 10.9 yards per return. He did not qualify as a kick returner, but among those with double digit returns, he was 12th, averaging 26.8 yards per return.
The 49ers may not know what to do with LMJ on offense, but as a returner, it's just a matter of getting the blocks and otherwise getting the heck out of the way. LMJ remains relatively cost effective at this point, with cap hits of $905,154 in 2014 and $1,056,013 in 2015. Maybe the team tries to move him at some point, but for now, he remains a solid return man with continued potential.