Devin Hester may be relieved of kick-return duties

The addition of Eric Weems and Devin Thomas, two players with experience as kickoff returners, has the left the Chicago Bears with an interesting question: Should Devin Hester be relieved of all kickoff-return duties in 2012?

"We have that versatility now," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "We added another good player into the (kick-return) mix in Devin Thomas."

The Bears had the luxury of limiting Hester’s kickoff returns during the 2009 season, when Johnny Knox and Danieal Manning combined for 60 returns. Hester had just seven kickoff returns that year as he caught a career-high 57 passes.

The Bears seem even more intent on making Hester an integral part of the offense at wide receiver -- even despite the addition of top target Brandon Marshall -- which is likely to encourage them to limit or totally eliminate Hester's work on kickoffs.

Last year, Hester returned 33 kickoffs for 723 yards, including one score. His 21.9-yard average ranked 24th in the league. Knox averaged 26.5 yards on 15 kickoff returns.

Hester has five career kickoff-return touchdowns.

Thomas, who played with the New York Giants last season, ranked 14th in the league with an average of 24.3 yards per kickoff return in 2011. Weems, a member of the Atlanta Falcons, finished 18th at 23.5 yards per return. The 5-foot-9, 195-pound Weems has a natural feel and great understanding of angles, which could lead to him being the primary kickoff returner.

Of course, the new rules allowing kickoffs from the 35-yard line instead of the 30 have affected kickoff returns dramatically. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the percentage of touchbacks on kickoffs increased from 16.4 percent in 2010 to 43.5 percent last season.

Still, it always helps to have explosive returners capable of setting up solid field position. The Bears had arguably the league’s best duo in Hester and Knox. With Knox’s status uncertain coming off spinal fusion surgery, Weems and Thomas (6-2, 221) could comprise the next tandem.

"This offseason, we’re still talking about the roles of different guys," Smith said. "First off, we want to get good players. Then we will put them in their perfect spots a little bit later."

Hester will continue to be the team’s primary punt returner. He led the league with an average of 16.2 yards per punt return last season despite posting a career-high 15 fair catches.  Hester also returned two punts for scores, pushing his all-time NFL record to 12 punt-return touchdowns. He has an NFL record of 17 total kick return touchdowns in 92 games.

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