Hester predicts breakout year
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- There is no hesitation from Devin Hester, which is no surprise given the way he darts down the field, only this time he was not sprinting by a defender.
He was meeting questions head on.
Does he see a Pro Bowl receiver on the Chicago Bears?
"Yes, I see one," Hester said.
The most likely candidate?
"I'm going to say myself," Hester said. "That's just the mentality I've got to have, you know? To go out and compete and be the best."
One more thing.
"I'm going to break out this year," Hester said.
Always confident, Hester seems even more emboldened after working with former Pro Bowl receiver Isaac Bruce and picking his brain on new offensive coordinator Mike Martz.
It's a critical season for the Bears after a 7-9 finish last season and third straight playoff miss, one that could determine the future of coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jerry Angelo. The Bears made a big splash in free agency, landing Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Pepper and running back Chester Taylor, and shook up the coaching staff.
But for all those moves there are several areas of concern. That includes a young group of wide receivers that has shown some promise but remains unproven.
"We have a great group of talented receivers," Johnny Knox said. "We all work hard. We're all confident."
Do they have a No. 1? Hester anticipates a more even distribution. As for the skeptics?
"It just builds a bigger chip on our shoulder, to prove to ourselves that hey, we can be one of the elite receivers in this league," Hester said.
The Bears have been waiting for him to emerge since they started to convert him to a wide receiver three years ago. They gave him a four-year, $40 million contract extension in July 2008, hoping he would become a top target, but it's been a slow process.
Whether it's coincidental or related, he has struggled on special teams the past two years after two record-setting seasons in which he returned seven punts and four kickoffs for touchdowns. He has none since then and is mainly handling punts, but he showed some promise on offense last season.
He had 757 yards receiving and three touchdown catches before missing the final three games with a calf injury and is looking for more.
Martz has a successful track record. He also has a more intricate system based on the quarterback throwing to spots and the receiver getting there. That could be difficult for someone who's still new to the position, but Hester at least made the effort to grasp it.
He kept watching video of Bruce and Torry Holt during offseason sessions and asked Martz to put him in touch with Bruce, who like Hester is from South Florida. Hester wondered if they could work out together, and Bruce said yes.
So four days a week for about a month that's what they did, usually on a track in Fort Lauderdale.
Conditioning was a big part of it, with sprints and running up and down stairs, but so was the mental aspect. One of the knocks on Hester was that he wasn't always in the right spot and wasn't good at running routes.
"Who says that?" receivers coach Darryl Drake said. "Who says that he's not really a route runner? Who does? That's what I'm asking you. When did they say that? I guess it's people that haven't been out there watching him run a route, watch his body control. If somebody says that, that tells me how really non-visual football that they are. It really does. When people say he's not a good route runner, boy, that is ignorance at its highest level."
Yet even Hester acknowledges issues in that area, issues Bruce helped him resolve. He also realized one other thing.
"Every route is not meant to be run fast," Hester said. "Certain routes, you run at a controlled speed and set up opportunities for yourself. If you run a route too fast, you get a misread on the quarterback. You set up routes, you come out of your breaks better and get out there."
In the past, Hester said, he was always going full speed.
Another point of emphasis was confidence.
Bruce kept stressing that, would make Hester say "I'm the best receiver in the league."
"What do they say? If a liar lies so much, he starts believing his lies?" Hester said. "So if you start telling yourself you're the best, you're the best, eventually you're going to be the best. And you're going to play like the best."
That would be best for the Bears.
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press