Can the Chicago Bears afford the luxury of Devin Hester in 2013, not 1993?

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devin-hester

Does Devin Hester, sans the wide receiver’s gloves, suddenly offer too little potential production to survive in today’s NFL given his hefty salary cap figure? With the advent of the hard salary cap in 1994, teams have been tasked with finding as many versatile players as possible.

While the salary cap era spawned a significant increase in dual punt and kick returners–their consolidation of duties is cost efficient—the high-priced dual returner with no offensive, defensive or other special teams responsibilities is an endangered species. The lone survivor might be found on the Chicago Bears’ roster on opening day against the Cincinnati Bengals in the name of Devin Hester.

Or maybe not.

For Hester to avoid the fate of the dinosaurs, he will likely need to show a burst during training camp and exhibition games to justify remaining the exception to a trend that wiped out his expensive one-dimensional brethren years ago.

Clearly Devin Hester is one of the best kick returners in franchise history and arguably among the top five in league history.  Hester, whose career started in 2006, holds the record for the most kicks returned for touchdowns with seventeen and the most punts returned for touchdowns with twelve, and he is tied for eighth in career kickoffs returned for touchdowns with five.  His career punt return average of 12.1 ranks 12th in league history, and in his seven seasons, he has led the league in punt return average twice (2010 and 2011) and has finished second on two other occasions (2006 and 2007).  He is also a player whose elegance and class off the field are beyond reproach.

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Hester’s kickoff return production has not been nearly as prolific as often perceived.  Only once, in 2006, has he been among the top ten in return average.  His 23.9 yard return average ties for only 129th in league history, and former Bears’ Gale Sayers, Johnny Knox, Danieal Manning, Ron Smith, Willie Galimore and Jerry Azumah all rank ahead of Hester.  Last year, Hester had one of his least productive seasons as a returner, failing to finish in the top ten in punt or kick return average and also failing to score on a return for the first time since 2009.
Shortly after assuming the Bears’ head-caching position, Marc Trestman announced that he was dropping Hester from the wide receiver rotation, a member of which Hester had been since 2007, so that Hester could focus exclusively on returning kickoffs and punts.  In so doing, Trestman has made Hester the only current high-priced dual returner with no supplemental special teams, defensive or offensive responsibilities, a dinosaur trying to fend off extinction.
Arguably there has not been a marquee dual kick returner without additional responsibilities since at least the mid 1990’s when former Bear Glyn Milburn spent the 1997 season with the Detroit Lions and several-time pro-bowler Mel Gray plied his trade with the Houston Oilers in 1995 and 1996 after a long tenure with the Lions.  Hester’s base salary for 2013 is approximately $1.9 million, his cap figure approximately $2.9 million.  If he were released, his cap figure would drop to approximately $1 million, leading to almost $2 million of cap savings or the equivalent of almost five rookie minimum salaries of $405,000 apiece.
As we detail below, the trend against the dual high-priced kick returner without any additional responsibilities has been growing since 1994 but picking up steam like Hester on a return breakaway since 2007.  For purposes of this article, we define a “dual returner” as one who returned both the majority of his team’s punts and kickoffs in a given season.   We define “supplemental contributions” very liberally to include any production, whether offensive or defensive or on special teams coverage units, outside of returning kicks.  Finally, we define a “high- priced” returner as one whose cap figure exceeds $1 million.
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From 1988 to 1993, the six seasons prior to the dawn of the salary cap in 1994, there were 32 dual returners, an average of six per season.  In the nineteen seasons since the salary cap took effect, the average number of dual returners per season has swelled to nine or 165 total, likely the result of salary cap constraints forcing coaches to spread players’ responsibilities.  However, not only has the dual returner proliferated under the salary cap, the dual returner with supplemental responsibilities has too.  Between 1994 and 2007, there were 121 dual returners.  Of those, 19% or 23 had no additional responsibilities.
However, from 2008 to 2012, there were 44 dual retruners and only four percent or two had no supplemental responsibilities.  So not only does it appear that the salary cap contributed to an increase in the number of dual returners; but more recently it has had a corollary effect of drastically limiting the number of dual returners whose responsibilities are soley limited to returning kicks.  And as we illustrate below, the high priced dual returner with no additional responsibilities appears to be on the verge of becoming a relic.
To further elucidate this point in a recent context, we profiled the 30 dual returners between 2010 and 2012. What we found is they all fit one of three profiles:  1) they had cap figures of over $1 million but also made contributions on offense, defense or kick return coverage units; 2) they were paid near the league minimum but still made additional contributions; or 3) they were paid near the league minimum and did not contribute on offense, defense or other special teams.  As we will demonstrate,  there was not a single instance of a high-priced returner with no supplemental responsibilities, which is now Devin Hester’s profile.  In fact, there were only two instances out of the 30 where a dual returner made no ancillary contributions, and in both cases, the player was earning near the league minimum salary.
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2010
1) High-priced dual returners who provided additional production
Josh Cribbs:   Cribbs of the Cleveland Browns was in the first year of three-year contract that was reported to be worth anywhere from $18 to $20 million based on incentives.  He rushed twenty times for 66 yards, caught 23 passes for 292 yards and completed two of three passes for nineteen yards
Darren Sproles:  RB Sproles of the San Diego Chargers was playing on a one-year salary of $7.29 million.  He rushed 50 times for 267 yards and caught 59 passes for 520 yards.
Leon Wahington:  RB Washington of the Seattle Seahawks played on a one-year salary of $1.759 million.  He rushed 27 times for 100 yards and caught nine passes for 79 yards.
Ted Ginn, Jr.:  WR Ginn, Jr. of the San Francisco 49ers was making approximately $1million as part of the 5-year/$19.6 million contract that he signed as a rookie with the Miami Dolphins in 2007 before being traded to the 49ers in 2010  Ginn had twelve receptions for 163 yards and two carries for eleven yards.
2) Low-salaried dual kick returners who made at least some additional contribution   
Stefan Logan:  RB Logan of the Detroit Lions made a prorated portion of the rookie league minimum of $320,000. He rushed fifteen times for 95 yards.
Eric Weems:  WR Weems of the Atlanta Falcons made approximately $545,000, the fourth-year NFL veteran’s minimum.  He caught six passes for 61 yards.
Micheal Spurlock:  WR Spurlock of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made a prorated portion of the league’s second-year minimum salary of $395,000.  Spurlock had seventeen receptions for 250 yards.
Danny Amendola:  WR Amendola earned the league’s second year minimum salary of $395,000.  He caught 85 passes for 689 yards and rushed seven times for 81 yards.
Brandon Banks:  WR Banks of the Washington Redskins made the NFL minimum salary of $320,000.  Banks had two carries for six yards and two receptions for ten yards.
3) Low-salaried returners who did not provide any additional contributions
Marc Mariani:  WR Mariani of the Tennessee Titans made the league rookie minimum of $320,000.
2011
1) High-priced dual returners with ancillary production
Josh Cribbs:  WR Cribbs of the Cleveland Browns was in the second year of a three year, $18-$20 million deal that he signed prior to the 2010 season.  He caught 51 passes for 518 yards and carried seven times for 25 yards.
Darren Sproles:  RB Sproles, now of the New Orleans Saints, earned a $1 million salary.  He rushed 87 times for 603 yards and caught 86 passes for 710 yards.
Leon Washington:  RB Washington of the Seahawks was in his first season of a four-year/$12.5 million extension.  He rushed 53 times for 248 yards and caught ten passes for 48 yards.
Ted Ginn, Jr.:  WR Ginn of the 49ers earned approximately $1 million after agreeing to restructure the final year of the rookie deal he signed with the Miami Dolphins in 2007.  He had nineteen receptions for 220 yards and rushed eight times for 68 yards.
Eric Weems:  WR Weems’ salary was $1.2 million in his final year with the Falcons.  He caught eleven passes for 90 yards.
Note:  Eric Weems’ ancillary production of eleven receptions for 90 yards failed to increase commensurate with his $1.2 million salary.  He was deemed expendable by the Falcons and allowed to sign with the Bears as a free agent after the 2011 season.  Meanwhile, RB Jacquizz Rodgers, who was making the second-year minimum of $465,000,  was tasked with returning kickoffs for the Falcons in 2012, and DB Dominique Franks, earning the third-year minimum salary of $540,000, was charged with punt return duties.  Combined they made less in salary than Weems’ 2011 $1.2 million.  While Frank’s averaged two fewer yards per punt return than Weems did the previous year, Rodgers averaged two more per kickoff return.  Meanwhile, Rodgers rushed 94 times for 362 yards and caught 53 passes for 402 yards, and Franks contributed fourteen tackles and two passes defended on defense and special teams coverage.  Thus, when Weems’ salary soared and his ancillary production stayed grounded, the Falcons sought less expensive options at the return positions and received comparable return production and far superior ancillary output from his replacements.
Devin Hester:  WR Hester’s salary was approximately $1.6 million.  He caught 26 passes for 329 yards.
2) Low-salaried dual kick returners who made at least some contribution beyond returning kicks 
Antonio Brown:  WR Brown of the Pittsburgh Steelers earned a salary of approximately $375,000, the rookie minimum for 2011.  Brown had sixteen receptions for 167 yards.
Marc Mariani:  WR Mariani’s salary with the Titans was approximately $450,000, the minimum salary in 2011 for a player with one year accrued on an active roster.  He had five receptions for 24 yards and rushed once for five yards.
Brandon Banks:  WR Banks, in his second season in the league, made approximately $450,00 playing for the Redskins.  He completed his only pass attempt for 49 yards, caught one pass for ten yards and rushed once for one yard.
Stefan Logan:  RB Logan’s salary with the Lion’s in his third season was $525,000.  He rushed nine times for 32 yards and carried once for nine yards.
Randall Cobb:  WR Cobb of the Green Bay Packers played on the rookie minimum salary for 2011 of $375,000.  He caught 25 passes for 375 yards and rushed twice for five yards.
3) Low-salaried returners who did not provide any contributions on offense, defense or coverage units. 
Brandon Tate:  WR Tate of the Cincinnati Bengals earned a salary of approximately $525,000, the minimum salary for a player with two years accrued on an active roster.
2012
1) High-priced dual returners with ancillary production
Josh Cribbs:  WR Cribbs of the Browns completed the final season of a three-year contract worth as much as $20 million.  Cribbs caught seven passes for 63 yards and rushed six times for 42 yards.
Note:  At season’s end and perhaps a harbinger for Hester, Cribbs was allowed to leave the Browns as a free agent and sign a one-year $865,000 contract with the Oakland Raiders, barely above the league minimum for a player with eight years accrued on an active roster.  Cribbs’ production as a dual return specialist had not tailed off.  What had tailed off precipitously was Cribbs’ production on offense.  First on the Brown’s 2013 depth chart to return punts is cornerback Buster Skine, who played 16 games, including six starts, on defense and made 64 tackles in 2012.  First on the Browns’ depth chart at kickoff returner is WR Travis Benjamin, who had eighteen receptions for 298 yards last season in addition to six carries for 66 yards.  Skine’s and Benjamin’s 2013 salaries of $550,000 and $480,000, respectively, are significantly less combined than Cribbs had been earning in each of the previous three years.  Like with Weems, The Browns’ reshuffling represnts another example of a team jettisoning a high-priced dual returner when his ancillary production was not commensurate with his high-priced contract.
Jacoby Jones:  WR Jones of the Baltimore Ravens made $700,000 in base salary last year but had a cap figure of $1.6 million.  Jones had 30 receptions for 406 yards and one carry for six yards.
2) Low-salaried returners who provided at least some ancillary production:
Marcus Thigpen:  RB Thigpen of the Miami Dolphins made the rookie league minimum salary for 2012 of $390,000.  He had one reception for fifteen yards and one rush for eight yards.
Keshawn Martin:  WR Martin of the Houston Texans made the rookie league minimum salary of $390,000.  He had ten catches for 85 yards and four rushes for 53.
Brandon Banks:  WR Banks of the Redskins earned a salary of $540,000, the minimum in 2012 for a player with two years accrued on an active roster.  Banks had eight carries for fifteen yards and seven receptions for 36 yards.
Stefan Logan:  RB Logan of the Lions earned $615,000, the minimum salary in 2012 for a player with two years accrued on an active roster.  Logan had three receptions for seventeen yards and six carries for 28 yards.
Randall Cobb:  WR Cobb of the Packers earned a salary of $520,883.  He caught 80 passes for 954 yards and rushed ten times for 132 yards.
Darius Reynaud:  RB Reynaud of the Titans earned a salary of $465,000.  He rushed fifteen times for 33 yards and caught five passes for 35 yards.
3) Low-salaried returners who did not provide any additional contributions
None
Again, between 2010 and 2012, only two of the thirty dual kick returners in the league, both of whom were paid near the minimum salary, had no ancillary responsibilities.  And our through review of depth charts and coach interviews indicates that it is a virtual certainty that, if Hester makes the Bears at his current cap figure, he will be the only high-priced dual returner with no additional responsibilities this season and the fist of his ilk in almost two decades.
Thus, our conclusion appears to be unassailable.  The salary cap likely first gave rise to a proliferation of dual kick returners, as teams sought ways to become more cost-efficient with their personnel.  Starting in 2008, it appears that a second and related trend all but eliminated the dual kick returner without ancillary responsibilities, a further cost efficiency.  And, finally, the high-priced dual returner whose duties are limited to just returning kicks has only one remnant left, and he wears # 23 for the Bears.
Does this mean that Trestman and Bears’ General Manager Phil Emery have devised a nefarious plot to keep Hester from breaking with the 53-man roster; that they can simply cite a universal league-wide practice of high-priced dual kick returners needing to fill more roles to justify their salary cap figure?  We do not think so.  Assuming that Trestman does not relent on his decision to eliminate Hester from offense, we think Bears’ management is trying to give Hester every opportunity to prove that he should be the exception to the rule; that he is worth the Bears forgoing the $2 million in cap savings that would allow them to pay almost five rookies making the league minimum salary. The evidence of his past dominance can be found all over Youtube and in the record books.  Now it is up to Hester, during the exhibition season and training camp, to perform at such a exceptional level that he avoids following the dinosaurs or single purpose, high-priced dual returners into extinction.  Let’s hope that he survives the Great Flood called roster cuts.
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