As the NFL Draft approaches, Grizzly Detail is counting down the Top 30 draft picks in Chicago Bears history. In order to qualify for this list, a player must have worn a Bears uniform for at least five seasons (sorry Rosevelt Colvin and Wilber Marshall), and players who were selected in lower rounds of the draft will have an advantage in this countdown.
We continue the countdown with the greatest kick returner in NFL history, as Devin Hester checks into our list in the #22 slot.
Drafted in the second round of the 2006 NFL Draft, Hester immediately burst onto the scene with the Bears and set about smashing records throughout the NFL. In his first season alone, Hester picked up five touchdown returns (three punts, two kick-offs), and transformed the Bears’ special teams unit from an asset into an explosive phase of the game.
Overall in his career with the Bears, Hester returned 13 punts for touchdowns and added five more kick-off returns for scores, including a career long 98-yarder during the 2011 season. He has since moved on to greener pastures with the Atlanta Falcons, but his legacy will remain strong for what he did during his tenure with the team that drafted him.
If there is any one moment in Hester’s career that will define him, it will be the kick-off return that opened Super Bowl XLI that will be remembered forever. His cut up the field to start the game against the Indianapolis Colts electrified the soaking wet crowd in Miami, and even though the joy was short-lived as the Bears went on to be trounced in the game, it was still a stirring reminder of the magic he was capable of.
Hester naturally had his share of bad moments in addition to those moments of glory. He never really stood out when he was playing defensive back for the Bears, the position at which he was drafted, and even when he transitioned to wide receiver later in his career, he didn’t fare much better. He did snare 14 touchdown grabs in 123 games, but his effectiveness was limited by poor route running and an inability to adjust to coverages that teams would throw at him.
It was ultimately that inability to stand out as a wide-out that led Marc Trestman to put Hester in strictly for return duties during the 2013 season, and likely was the reason why the team did not re-sign him when his contract expired. The move ruffled some feathers, including those of linebacker Lance Briggs, but the team simply couldn’t afford to keep a luxury item like Hester at the price that other teams were willing to pay for his services.
As the only special teamer on this list, Hester certainly is worthy of the slot at which he ended up. He redefined the expectations for what a kick returner can do during his time with the team, and despite his failure to adjust effectively to the wide receiver position, he still managed to make a huge impact with the squad.
That being said, Hester would have ranked higher both if he had managed to play another position besides that of a return man AND if he had continued the stellar production that he put up in his first few years in the league. He was slowed considerably by the adjustments teams made when they were kicking (or more often, not kicking) to him, but the fact is that he lost a step after those first few seasons, and didn’t keep the closing speed that made him such a lethal weapon in the first place.