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32 Questions: Hester ready to break out?

8/18/2008

Can Devin Hester emerge as the Bears' No. 1 receiver?

When Devin Hester was selected in the second round of the 2006 NFL Draft, many people were astounded that Chicago could have wasted its pick on a cornerback when the team was in dire need of help on the offensive side of the ball. Two years, two Pro Bowls, 12 return touchdowns (including one in the Super Bowl) later, and suddenly fans are singing a different tune. Hester's game-breaking ability is the talk of the league and a perennial highlight-reel presence, and, as with many players of his obvious talents, Chicago wants to get the ball into his hands as much as humanly possible.

That's why in the 2007 season, Hester was slowly worked into the offensive huddle as a wide receiver, often either being used as a decoy or getting the ball as part of some gadget play. Results were mixed, to say the least. His seven rushes resulted in negative yardage, with his longest carry only netting five yards. As a receiver, he did manage to hit home runs twice: an 81-yard touchdown catch against the Vikings in Week 6, and a 55-yard score against the Saints in Week 17. Aside from that, there were many missed routes and dropped balls, showing Hester's inexperience. He caught just 18 other passes for a total of 153 yards on the season, not exactly the type of output that would make you think he'd ever be anything more than a novelty act.

So what makes 2008 different? Why should we expect Devin Hester to contribute anything more than the occasional lucky strike downfield? For one, there's the opportunity. The Bears parted ways with their top two receivers from 2007, Bernard Berrian and Muhsin Muhammad, in the offseason, leaving the door wide open for all comers to grab a starting spot. The Bears didn't stand pat, bringing back Marty Booker, who caught 50 balls for the Dolphins in 2007, and signing Brandon Lloyd, who missed much of last season with the Redskins due to injury and wasn't contributing much when he was healthy. These two join Hester, Rashied Davis, Mark Bradley and draft pick Earl Bennett as the primary options for starting wide receiver. It's not exactly a list of names that strikes fear into the hearts of opposing cornerbacks, save for the speedy Hester.

Certainly coach Lovie Smith seems to recognize this, and with a season of experience at the wide receiver position under his belt, Hester apparently has Smith's full endorsement. "Coming into camp, we talked about him as a returner that a lot of people thought could play receiver," Smith told the Daily Herald, a suburban Chicago newspaper. "Now, I think it's safe to say that he's a receiver. He's doing all the things that we've asked him to do. I still make the same statement: I think he can be a 1- or 2-type receiver in the league. He's dangerous when he has his hands on the football, and we're excited about getting his hands on the ball in a lot of different ways."

But even if Hester doesn't end up at the top of the depth chart immediately, that could ultimately prove to be to his advantage. After all, the quarterback battle between Kyle Orton and Rex Grossman has no clear winner in sight, and there's a very good chance that whichever player ends up starting Week 1 might not be there several weeks later. If Hester is getting more reps in practice with the second unit, then he's going to develop better chemistry with the "loser" of the quarterback battle than Booker or Lloyd. When the leadership reins are passed on, he should be able to jump right in and grab a lot more playing time, and quite possibly become the Bears' greatest offensive weapon on all four downs, and not just when the special-teams unit is on the field.

Heck, why stop there? According to an article in the Chicago Sun-Times, Hester is even taking snaps as quarterback in practice, heaving passes down the field on gimmick run/pass option plays designed just for him. Perhaps if Orton and Grossman are both ineffective, Hester can take over as the No. 1 quarterback instead. All right, maybe that's taking things a little too far, but the fact remains that Hester is one of those rare individuals who can change the face of a game in a heartbeat. The coaching staff is thrilled with his progress since last season, and they're going to want to give him as many chances as possible at touching the ball.

At worst, he sees action in selected packages as a No. 3 receiver which, when coupled with his touchdown-making ability as a return man, makes him a late-round sleeper pick. Far more likely that Booker can't recapture the magic of the 1,000-yard receiving seasons he had in Chicago in 2001 and '02, and that Lloyd disappoints his third team in his six years in the league. That makes Hester the obvious choice to step in and see every-down action. Only 11 wide receivers had double-digit touchdowns in 2007. If Hester ends up playing every down, every game, even if he only catches five passes in the end zone for the season (which would match Berrian's output from last year), he'll likely join that exclusive club for 2008, based upon his expected continued success in the return game.

Does that mean you suddenly elevate him to the same draft tier as Marques Colston, Larry Fitzgerald and Reggie Wayne? Not quite yet. But he's gaining fast on the field, and given his past history, we'd wager on Hester catching them.

A.J. Mass is a fantasy football, baseball and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.