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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' 2020 offseason dates you need to know

Bears' 2020 offseason dates you need to know

The Bears 2020 offseason feels like it's been underway for a while, but the reality is it's just getting started. The fun gets underway in March when unrestricted free agency kicks off, followed by the 2020 NFL Draft – when GM Ryan Pace will try to flip Chicago's two second-round picks into potential starters for a team that isn't that far away from contending for a Super Bowl.

Here are the key dates to bookmark in your calendar for the Bears' offseason:

February 2020

  • Feb. 24-March 1 – NFL Scouting Combine
  • Feb. 25 – Ryan Pace/Matt Nagy meet with media at NFL Combine
     

March 2020

  • Feb. 24 – March 1 – NFL Scouting Combine
  • March 18 – Free agency and new league year begins


April 2020

  • April 7 – Ed Block Courage Award presentation
  • April 20 – Bears may begin offseason workout programs
  • April 21 – Brian Piccolo Awards presented to rookie and veteran
  • April 21 – Ryan Pace will speak with the media ahead of NFL Draft
  • April 23-25 – 2020 NFL Draft in Las Vegas
     

May 2020

  • May 8-10 – Bears rookie minicamp at Halas Hall
  • May 16 – Bears Care Gala at Soldier Field
  • May 27 – May 29 – OTA practices


JUNE 2020

  • June 2-4 – OTA practices
  • June 8 – 11 – OTA practices
  • June 16-18 – Mandatory full-squad minicamp

Saints’ QB Teddy Bridgewater expected to have a hefty price tag in free agency

Saints’ QB Teddy Bridgewater expected to have a hefty price tag in free agency

The NFL offseason is gearing up this winter, with trade and salary rumors running rampant among analysts and fans. Bears GM Ryan Pace has his work cut out for him, with a decently sized to-do list before the 2020 season, including finding competition under center for QB Mitch Trubisky. From Tom Brady to Philip Rivers, there are plenty of quarterback options, but one player may be too expensive for the Bears.

ESPN's Jeremy Fowler reports Saints’ QB Teddy Bridgewater is expected to rake in big money in free agency. With a projected salary to the tune of $30 million per year, Bridgewater could land a lucrative deal.

It makes some sense Bridgewater could come with such a hefty price tag. He earned above-average rankings in adjusted yards per attempt (15th), QB Rating (11th), TD Rate (13th) and completion rate (6th) among 38 QBs to start at least five games in 2019. If Drew Brees decides to keep playing, the Saints will have to choose between Bridgewater and Taysom Hill as their backup.

Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer previously reported if Brees were to retire, the Saints viewed Hill as their new franchise quarterback, leaving Bridgewater free to explore other options.

It has yet to be seen how Brees and the Saints will proceed, but it’s certainly a reality check to see how expensive the QB market will be this offseason. 

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