The Atlanta Falcons made another interesting acquisition in free agency on Thursday, signing kickoff and punt returner Devin Hester to a three-year, $9 million deal that brings one of the best return men in NFL history to the NFC South.
Hester, who holds several league records thanks to his big-play ability in the kicking game, spent seven seasons with the Chicago Bears, who drafted him in the second round of the 2006 NFL Draft. Among Hester’s highlights during his tenure with the Bears were a 108-yard missed field goal returned for a touchdown, a kickoff return for a touchdown to open Super Bowl XLI, three Pro Bowl appearances, and four All-Pro selections.
Hester’s status as one of the best returners in football history makes his addition a notable one for the Falcons, which has struggled in this aspect of the game ever since Eric Weems left for the Windy City following the 2011 season. The Falcons have not had a kickoff returned for a touchdown since the 2010 NFC Divisional Playoff game against the Green Bay Packers and were atrocious with running back punts last year, finishing the season 25th in the league with 7.6 yards per return.
As important as it is for Atlanta to have a capable returner on their roster, the NFL’s rule change that moved kickoffs up to the 35-yard line has diminished the role of players like Devin Hester in any given game. According to TeamRankings.com, the NFL saw an average of 5 touchbacks per game last season, a number significantly higher than the 1.08 average that Hester experienced in his career-year of 2007, when he returned two kickoffs for a touchdown and ended the season with 934 return yards. Hester certainly has been a game-changer ever since he entered the NFL, but at thirty-one years old, even the most optimistic of fans has to wonder how much Hester will bring to the Falcons.
With a deal that provides the former Miami Hurricane three million dollars per season, some have begun to predict that Atlanta will utilize Hester on offense much like the Bears did for the better part of six seasons. Hester does not have the receiving skills (217 career receptions with 14 touchdowns) to stand beside the likes of fellow Falcons Julio Jones or Roddy White, but his signing can potentially add depth to a receiving corp that was devastated in 2013.
The Falcons mentioned in their press release announcing Hester’s signing that the Riviera Beach, Florida native played fullback during his collegiate days, an interesting tidbit that may mean that 5’10”, 185 pound Cane will step in and occasionally fill in for the Falcons now that Jason Snelling has called it quits. While Hester never played the role of the blocking back with Chicago, the Falcons have shied away from utilizing fullbacks ever since Ovie Mughelli was released in the summer of 2012, which means that playing Hester sporadically at this spot is not necessarily an insane notion.
There have been several people that have questioned Atlanta’s signing of Hester, but it seems apparent that the Falcons know what they’re getting from Hester: an experienced returnman that may have just enough left in the tank to provide some big plays. If Hester is able to give the Falcons anything else, whether it is a few noteworthy plays at wide receiver or fullback or simply tutelage of Jacquizz Rodgers and the younger players who may soon step up to Hester’s role, the Falcons should consider it an appreciated added plus.