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Devin Hester: From busting returns to a bust in Canton

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AP

Devin Hester: From busting returns to a bust in Canton

Difference makers. Playmakers.  Game changers.

It's more of what the present-day Bears are trying to stock their roster with and develop the potential ones that might already be there. The Bears of the mid- and late-2000s either inherited, drafted, or signed enough of them on the defensive side to remain a contender that too often fell short. A big reason for that was their inability to do the same on the offensive side of the ball.

But general manager Jerry Angelo made a boom-or-bust roll of the dice in the second round of the 2006 NFL Draft on a kid from Miami. He was definitely special and could be a difference makear, but didn't really have a position.

If Devin Hester did indeed play the final game of his career Saturday in Atlanta, the 11-year pro gave us a quick flashback at age 34, if only wearing the navy, white and neon green of the Seahawks instead of the navy, white and orange of the Bears.

An 80-yard punt return was nullified due to a holding call. But he had five kick returns for 194 yards. Had he produced like that more consistently in recent years with the Falcons, or this season with the Ravens before signing a pre-playoff deal with Seattle, he wouldn't be retiring, as he says he now will.

Those Bears teams with the frustrating, inconsistent offenses that fell short of the mostly-high defensive standard set during Lovie Smith's years needed something extra. That was Hester.

When you pore through the hits and misses of Angelo Era drafts, this gamble was a thumbs up, even if the desire to further implement Hester's natural gifts fell short (and confirmed by Atlanta's short-lived attempts to do the same once the Bears let him go three years ago).

The Brian Mitchells and Eric Metcalfs and Dante Halls and Leon Washingtons and Joe Cribbses who preceded him set a certain standard in the return game. Hester blew them away. Had Gale Sayers never suffered his knee injuries, perhaps that would have been the standard Hester chased, and could still be chasing.

But the combined 14 punt return touchdowns (first all-time), five kickoff return touchdowns and one missed field goal return should push Canton's door open for the first time for a return specialist. Whether it's five years from now, or if the wait needs to be a little longer, it's deserved.

The biggest stage, the one in Super Bowl XLI when Hester opened the game with his 92-yard scoring return, turned into one of just six losses the Bears suffered when he returned a kick for a score. Hester's weaponry capped a perfect special teams storm that picked up slack in those years when the offense lagged. He was the cherry on top of Dave Toub's group that rarely seemed a concern on gameday when the likes of Patrick Mannelly, Brendan Ayanbadejo, Jason McKie, Robbie Gould, Nick Roach, among many others, found often-overlooked ways to make a subtle impact.

And that rainy night in Miami was the highlight and, unfortunately, the exception to what was often common in games Devin would do his "ridiculous" thing.  His magic helped them to 12 wins, while most of the other five losses were ones in which the Bears fell short by 10 or fewer points.

B.H. ("Before Hester") was the time we'd get up in the press box, or watching at home, to take a bathroom break or go on a snack run as opposing teams set up to punt or kickoff. He changed that. By the time the NFL determined in 2011 that kickoffs should come from the 35-yard line instead of the 30, most of Hester's serious damage to opponents had been done.

Plus, the league was concerned about the growing number of injuries on kickoffs. But that likely took away a few more opportunities to add to Hester's record. Touchbacks went from 16 percent in 2010 to 52 percent in 2015. Then this past year, the league got even "safer" by giving offenses five more yards (to the 25) on touchbacks (a rule which will revisited this off-season).

Toub has the newest return sensation in Kansas City in Tyreek Hill, whose game so far seems more versatile offensively than what Hester was ever able to provide. Time will tell about his staying power.

But between rule changes, impact on games and opponents' strategy, the record, plus a don't-turn-your-back now change of mindset, it wasn't just us in Chicago who realized Devin Hester was a game changer. It's fun to listen to and watch smile when his former teammates relate the charge of energy that burst through the team whenever Hester took one to the house.

The second-most memorable, of course, was the one that capped the Monday night comeback in Arizona his rookie season. He was an impactful addition, just as he should eventually be the first of his kind in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Because he was one of a kind.

Sandberg in Cooperstown. Jordan in Springfield. Here's to another Chicago No. 23 in the Hall.

Bears still have league-average amount of salary cap space left

Bears still have league-average amount of salary cap space left

Free agency has slowed to crawl a little more than a week into the process, and the Bears still have some money to spend.

Ryan Pace made multiple moves to clear up additional salary cap space this offseason, but he spent his money cautiously.

Even with five outside signings under contract, he still has the space to make some more moves.

As of Friday, the Bears have just under $17 million in cap space, the 16th-most in the NFL, according to ESPN’s Field Yates.

Pace has more money to work with now than he did before the team started releasing players to clear space.

He still has to keep some cap available to sign their draft picks as well as an emergency fund for the season, but the Bears have more than enough money left to add an impact player or two on the open market.

The pool of talent to pick from continues to shrink, but Pace can still find quality options that could come at a bargain the longer they sit on the open market.

 

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Chicago Football Madness Rd. of 32: Chalk dominates the 1st round, with some notable exceptions

Chicago Football Madness Rd. of 32: Chalk dominates the 1st round, with some notable exceptions

Excitement for the Bears are at an all-time high, so while March Madness and the NCAA Tournament begin, we still have Bears on the mind. So we've created Chicago Bears Football Madness, pitting players from the three best Bears teams and legends head-to-head.

THIS. IS. STILL. MARCH. 

The first round of our inaugural Chicago Football Madness Tournament is over, and friends, it was kind of anti-climatic -- except for Jay Cutler advancing, that rules. 

Out of all the 32 Opening Round matchups, only two underdogs moved on: Robbie Gould and The Fridge. Now, Gould's got a tough matchup against 2-seed Lance Briggs, and there's no rest for the Perry (this joke works, right?) as he takes on Walter Payton. 

Keep sending the votes in! You can find all the matchups over on our Twitter account, or on the website, because we like to give you options. 

RD. OF 32 REGIONS:

1985 Bracket

2006 Bracket

2018 Bracket

Legends/Others Bracket

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Bears.