To read the methodology I devised to rank the Falcons players, click here.
Total Score: 44/100
Last year’s rank: N/A
Player Grade: 49/100
Teams he is starter: 0 out of 32
Teams he is best position player: 0 out of 32
Teams he is role player: 32 out of 32
Peak-Year Bonus: 0
Positional Bonus: +3
Hester was brought in to primarily be the return specialist for the Falcons. In that capacity, he is arguably the best returner in NFL history. His 13 punts taken back for scores is the all-time mark, and he currently sits tied with Deion Sanders with most non-offensive touchdowns (19) in a career.
Hester’s always been a little more dangerous as a punt returner than kick returner, especially since new rules adopted by the league have limited the impact in the latter arena in recent seasons.
If there is any cause for concern with Hester, it’s that his penchant to go for the home run can lead to a few mistakes and turnovers. Hester fumbled 30 times over the course of eight years on 486 combined kickoff and punt returns for the Chicago Bears, or once every 16 returns. In contrast, during his tenure in Atlanta return specialist Eric Weems only fumbled three times in 190 total returns, or once every 63 returns.
But that risk is mitigated by the fact that Hester is and has been a far more explosive returner than Weems was. Only about eight percent of Weems’ punt returns as a Falcon went for 20 or more yards, while 21 percent of Hester’s returns did during his career as a Bear. Even in recent years where Hester has slowed down, that figure is still at 15.5 percent.
Not since the heyday of Allen Rossum (2002-04) have the Falcons sported a return specialist that was a threat to take it to the house every time he touched the ball.
Hester will also be in the mix on offense, although expectations are that he’ll be only a part-time player there. The hope is that the Falcons will try to take advantage of Hester’s dynamic abilities with the ball in his hands, akin to how the Seattle Seahawks utilized Percy Harvin in their recent Super Bowl win. A heavy dose of screens and reverses with the occasional deep pass would likely be a best way to maximize Hester’s impact on offense.
Hester struggled as an offensive weapon in Chicago, partially due to the poor rapport he had with Bears quarterback Jay Cutler. Cutler simply did not trust Hester which largely explains why wide out Brandon Marshall received such a high workload in 2012 (192 targets) due to the disparity in trust between the quarterback and both receivers.
Given Hester’s sporadic offensive usage during the offseason activities, it seems unlikely that will be any different in Atlanta. If Hester plays significant reps on offense this year, it will likely only be in the event of an injury to other receivers.
Instead, Hester’s value will be determined by whether or not he can provide at least one big play each week, whether that is via the return game, a screen pass or on an end-around. And even at age 31, there should be a lot of optimism that he can provide that sort of electricity that will excite the Georgia Dome.