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Hester wants Hall-of-Fame season

Bears returner figures great year virtually will assure selection as one of NFL's all-time greats

Mike Mulligan

6:52 PM CDT, August 20, 2013

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Bears returner Devin Hester believes he has done enough in his NFL career to have "one foot in" the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Nonetheless, he has contemplated life beyond the Bears, saying, "I don't think they are going to let me go," of his 2013 roster status, while admitting he thought there was a good chance he would be traded during the April draft.

"It was something in the back of our mind," Hester said.

Welcome to life for a one-dimensional player in the 3D world of the NFL. Once called a No. 1 wide receiver, Hester now is used strictly on kickoff and punt returns, and as a deep threat on the field goal block team.

He turned 30 in November, which is traditionally a scary age for a return guy. Well, mere mortal returners perhaps. Brian Mitchell, who played 14 NFL seasons, had four touchdown returns in his 30s — three on punt returns and one off a kickoff. Eric Metcalf, a 13-year veteran, had one on a punt return.

Hester is entering his eighth NFL season and is in the final year of his contract. He figures he can play another four years.

"Right now, I just concentrate on this season and I am pretty sure if (the Bears) decided to cut me another team will pick me up," Hester said. "My goal is to retire as a Bear. (But) I know this is a business. Whatever happens, I want to create enough esteem that there is no stress at the end of the year."

Hester is the greatest return man in NFL history and his next return touchdown will tie Hall of Famer Deion Sanders for the most in NFL history at 19. Sanders had 10 touchdown returns on defense, including nine interception returns. Hester's have come on 12 punt returns, five kickoff returns and one missed field goal return.

There is only one player in the Hall of Fame, kicker Jan Stenerud, who never played offense or defense. Punter Ray Guy someday may get there, while Hester, who came into the league as a cornerback and moved to wide receiver, knows to make it as a return man, he has to erase any question.

"I have one foot in right now," he said. "If I take three or four back this year, it should be considered 80 percent chance of making it. But I am not really worried about it right now. I am really focused on this season. After this season, when all the stats add up, hopefully it won't be a question."

Special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis seemed surprised when asked if there was a scenario in which Hester isn't on the final roster.

"I don't think so," DeCamillis said. "He has shown through practices and even in the game situation the other night that he still has juice."

The suspicion is that Hester is primed for a big year, depending on the number of opportunities he gets. The team has shown no interest in expanding his role. When Earl Bennett went down, nobody told Hester to jump into a receivers drill. When Kelvin Hayden went down, nobody told Hester to play some corner.

"We're going to stick to the play," Hester said of being only a return ace.

Since the inception of the so-called Hester Rule, moving kickoffs from the 30- to the 35-yard line, touchbacks have gone from around 16 percent of kickoffs to more than 40 percent. That means fewer chances. And there long has been a book on punting to Hester with teams choosing to sky punt and force him to make decisions instead of directional punting. Outkicking coverage long has been a no-no with such a dangerous and prolific returner.

You can make a strong argument that the Bears will need every benefit in field position while their offense plays into form in a new system, so Hester is a necessity.

Hester probably will get a year as a pure return man because so many players on the roster are in the same contract position as he is. The team is not looking for cap space because it has put a moratorium on new deals. Cutting Hester would provide roughly $2 million in cap relief. If the Bears were looking for cap space to work out a contract extension with one of their many key players heading into the final year of their deals, Hester might be the first to go. But, apparently, the team is content to retain the status quo.

From the outside looking in, it may seem the Bears are imposing control over the roster by keeping an abundance of players wrapped up in a cataclysmic stall. But general manager Phil Emery has admitted there is a fairness issue to prioritizing free agents. With so many guys coming up at once, clearing cap space for one or two extensions could create ill will in the locker room among the many players on expiring deals.

Special contributor Mike Mulligan co-hosts "The Mully and Hanley Show" weekdays from 5 to 9 a.m. on WSCR-AM 670.