Devin Hester has been called fast, ridiculous, the best return man of all-time and a whole lot more in nine NFL seasons. Despite all that, Hester finds himself in a similar situation, fighting for snaps on offense in his 10th year.
After not lining up for a single play on offense in his final season with the Bears (2013), Hester took the field for 359 in his debut year in Atlanta.
The 32-year-old University of Miami product originally signed a three-year, $9 million pact with the Falcons with $3.5 million guaranteed last offseason.
Returning kicks in the NFL has become tough with the new rules in place, but Hester has still found a way to generate five return touchdowns (four punt return TD’s, one kick return TD) since the NFL moved the kickoff up to the 35-yard-line in 2011.
That includes his record breaking 20th return touchdown in Week 3 with a 62-yard punt return score against his former head coach Lovie Smith and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday Night Football. Hester also scored on a 20-yard reverse, which was his first career rushing touchdown as the Falcons cruised past the Bucs 56-14.
He excelled in his first season in Atlanta, totaling 1,368 return yards (1,128 on 45 kick returns, 240 on 18 punt returns). Hester’s career return touchdowns consist of 14 punts, five kickoffs and one blocked field goal. In his first two seasons alone (2006-07), he totaled 12 return scores.
After posting his best statistical season offensively since 2009 (38 catches, 504 yards, two TDs), it remains to be seen how exactly new Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shannahan plans to use Hester. Atlanta signed longtime Washington receiver Leonard Hankerson this offseason and drafted East Carolina star Justin Hardy in the fourth round.
It’s clear the Falcons want a spark outside of No. 1 receiver Julio Jones and his aging counterpart Roddy White. Hardy, Hankerson and Hester will all be vying for that No. 3 role. Regardless of who wins, they will all see time in certain packages.
Training camp will likely reveal all we need to know about Hester’s role with the Falcons in 2015. He will be used on screen passes, short routes and end-arounds (when needed), but if he wants the No. 3 role, he will have to work hard for it.
Luckily for Hester, Hankerson has only made it through one full season (2012) as he’s appeared in 31 games with 14 starts. Hardy, despite all of his impressive college stats (387 career receptions, 35 TD’s) is still a rookie, so his expectations should be tempered until we see him in professional pads.
Hester recorded four catches or more in five games a year ago, including five catches and 99 yards in a Week 1 win over New Orleans. That was his highest second receiving yard total since Week 6 against Cincinnati in 2009, when he totaled eight catches, 101 yards and a touchdown.
He also recorded 50 yards or more in three other games in 2014, which was topped off by an 85-yard performance in Week 15 against Pittsburgh.
Those are all things Hester can build off of this year. The Falcons will view his offensive game film and see where he fits in exactly, but there is no doubting that he can still make it happen in the return game.
When Hester touches the ball good things can happen for your team. Regardless of his offensive role, he will be a dangerous threat this season.