The Bears are going to make Devin Hester solidify his roster position as a returner, creating an interesting dynamic as it is difficult to evaluate special teams without live action.
A coverage team running down the field in Bourbonnais isn't the same kind of challenge for Hester or his blockers when hitting isn't involved. They're not moving as fast as in a game either. So special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis, coach Marc Trestman and general manager Phil Emery face a challenge to ensure Hester remains an elite game-changer.
Trestman is dedicated to maintaining the team's solid standing in special teams, and the Bears get ample work in practice. They spent time on kickoff return Wednesday, and it didn't look like Hester, 30, had lost a step.
But isn't it hard to determine where Hester is without an actual game?
"It is and it isn't," DeCamillis said. "One of the things he's done a great job of is he's got a lot of reps. He's got a lot of catches. He's got a lot of situational things we've done. He's in a great frame of mind right now. He is right where we need him to be.
"Obviously, the competition part of it is going to come from the games, but it is also going to come in practices. We'll get him evaluated that way as well."
Hester has done little return work in the preseason in recent years because the goal always has been to ensure he's healthy for the regular season. In the last five years, he has returned five punts in the preseason (one for 54 yards) and made three fair catches. He hasn't returned a kickoff since the 2008 preseason.
Hester, who has a base salary of $1.85 million in the final year of his contract and will count $2.94 million against the salary cap, struggled last season in the return game, and former coordinator Dave Toub said it was a mental issue.
His punt-return average of 8.3 yards was nearly half of his mark in 2011, when he had three return scores. He made errors fielding some balls, and there were issues with the blocking units as well. But Hester is not worried about proving his value in practice this summer.
"I look at my past history and I know what I am capable of doing," he said. "We all know I am the best return man that is stepping on this field. Coach Joe D. and I, we have spent a lot of time watching film on some of the things that can be corrected. It's a team thing."
Hester believes his legs will be fresher for returns now that he has been removed from the offense. That, he says, will make him feel like he did in 2006 and 2007, when he scored 11 of his 17 career return touchdowns.
"I was always explosive then," he said.
Hester said DeCamillis has made minor adjustments to the schemes, trying to ensure big guys are blocking big guys and smaller players are manned up on smaller players. It comes down to Hester following a key block and then finding a way to dominate with his athletic ability.
"The mistakes that I made and the mistakes that we made as a unit, those are easy to correct," he said. "At the end of the day, I am the best returner in this game, and I know that for a fact. What man can sit here and tell me that I lost it when I know what I am capable of doing?"