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While he may not be as feared as he once was, Devin Hester still remains to be a threat whenever he touches the ball. His resume proves that he is the greatest returner of all time. His highlight reel is jaw dropping, while he has proven to be a multidimensional player.
It was no secret that he was underutilized in Chicago. He never gained a strong rapport with Jay Cutler and was slowly ostracized from the offense entirely. His demise from the offense never affected Chicago, since the offense clearly carried Chicago to nearly winning their division. It was still disappointing to see them not utilize such a dynamic weapon properly.
He was never expected to be this 70-catch receiver or 1000 yard receiver. People forget that he came into the league, as a cornerback from Miami. The transition that he’s made into being such a spectacular returner has been remarkable. With his breakaway speed, he could still be utilized as a receiver. Unfortunately for him, it didn’t work out in Chicago and he wasn’t getting open consistently. His route running was sloppy, which led to miscommunication between him and Cutler.
I’m not expecting him to become Atlanta’s new slot receiver, especially when he’s said repeatedly that he wants to focus on being a returner. That still doesn’t eliminate the idea of utilizing him into the offense. Could you imagine him lining up next to Julio Jones? He would play the role, as a beneficiary option but can easily become the main target by using his blistering speed.
You can run a crossing pattern with Jones and have Hester simply run a streak or stop-and-go. The opposing defense would divert their attention to covering Jones knowing that he’s the focal point of the Falcons offense. That is where Hester could use the speed to get behind the option and the play is executed to perfection.
From a returner perspective, I know the recent stats may not duplicate his reputation. According to Jeff Schultz (AJC main writer), he doesn’t understand why fans should be excited. Hester has only had one punt return touchdown in the past two years and one kickoff return touchdown in the past three years. Sure he may be not be the same electrifying returner that he was from four years ago, but it is asinine to believe that he’s not going to be productive.
Schultz is an excellent writer, but his theory makes him out to be somewhat narrow-minded. Who rates an effective returner by touchdowns? You rate them off by their overall yard average per return. In Hester’s case, he affects the game simply based off his presence. Their have been plenty of opposing punters and kickers that would specifically kick away from him. That can lead to good field position or at least an extra five to ten yards. These may be small benefits towards signing Hester, but it will prove to be extremely beneficial in the long run.
One negative towards Atlanta signing Hester, besides the possible contract may come down to rule changes. With the NFL’s mission towards making the game safer, they are looking into making kickoffs start at the 40-yard line rather than the 35-yard line. That rule would basically destroy the aspect of kickoff returns. There would be nothing but touchbacks for the most part.
I’ve been very critical of the NFL’s motive of trying to make the game safer. It’s for a good cause in trying to make sure that their players can function properly when they retire. In the end, the NFL will always be a violent game. You can’t keep eliminating certain aspects of football that can be valuable for any team, whether it’s a big return or potential turnover. What about the possibility of trying an onside kick? Will that be eliminated as well? When you decide to play football, you commit to dealing with pain. There is no way getting around it.
From a personnel standpoint, Hester will certainly be a major upgrade. Atlanta hasn’t recovered from losing Pro Bowl returner Eric Weems in 2011. They’ve tried several guys for both returner roles and none of them really made much of an impact. The potential kickoff rule will affect Hester if it comes to fruition, but that won’t deteriorate his value as a punt returner. The financial terms haven’t been announced yet, so I can’t comment on whether he was overpaid or not. Regardless of the contract, the Falcons clearly needed a spark towards the return game. The front office decided to sign a game-changer rather than a spark. They should be commended for that, as the signing of Hester addresses another flaw.