ATLANTA — As the ball sailed through the air, special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong had a smile on his face.
When the ball came down, returner extraordinaire Devin Hester cradled the punt and made his way up field during the Falcons’ OTA practice Wednesday.
It was the second of 10 practices allowed by the league and the first that was open to media.
Armstrong was delighted to see his new pupil, perhaps the most-feared returner to play the game — Deion Sanders notwithstanding — make the catch and weave his way through imaginary traffic during the non-contact drills.
“I think that one thing that I really enjoy at this point in time is the way he’s approaching it,” Armstrong said. “He’s approaching it like a pro. He’s not approaching it like, ‘hey, I’ve been there before.’ He knows and understands that this is a different team, and he’s working his tail off.”
Since he was drafted by the Chicago Bears out of Miami in the second round of the 2006 draft, Hester, 31, has terrorized special-teams coverage units league-wide for eight seasons.
Hester, who was voted to the all-decade team for the first decade of the 2000s, signed a three-year contract worth $9 million with the Falcons in March.
He holds the NFL record for the most return touchdowns (punt and kickoffs combined) with 18 and has the most punt returns for touchdowns with 13. Also, he’s had 34 career fumbles and lost seven of them.
“My role is going to be pretty much kickoff and punt return,” Hester said. “I’ll take over full responsibility of that duty, and as far as on offense here and there.”
The Bears didn’t re-sign Hester, and he became a free agent.
“I don’t think I have to prove anything. You know, my stats and my play ability that I did over the past couple of years speaks for itself,” Hester said. “I just have to go out and concentrate on the techniques and little things like that and I should be pretty good.”
The Falcons, who haven’t had a lethal return man since Allen Rossum left after the 2006 season, are counting on Hester striking fear into the opposition. They haven’t had an above-average return man since Eric Weems left to sign with Chicago after the 2011 season.
“The good thing about Dev is that he brings a lot of fear,” wide receivers coach Terry Robiskie said. “There is a fear factor around the NFL because people know what that guy has done. They know that he’s a home-run hitter. That’s going to be exciting for us.”
In addition to Hester, the Falcons had wide receiver Harry Douglas and cornerbacks Robert McClain, Robert Alford and Javier Arenas fielding punts. McClain ended last season as the main punt returner.
Running back Jacquizz Rodgers has been the kickoff returner the past two seasons.
Armstrong hopes that having Hester will help lift the level of play across the special-teams units.
“When guys know that somebody is back there, and it started happening with Robert McClain last year at the end of the season, when guys know that the guy knows how to hit (a seam), they are going to start blocking harder,” Armstrong said. “That urgency will pick up.”
When and if Hester needs a break, Armstrong is much more comfortable with the depth behind him.
The Falcons also want to use Hester as a wide receiver. He caught 57 passes in 2009, but was phased out of the passing game last season in Chicago and didn’t catch a pass.
“Chicago did a good job with him (earlier in his career), moving him around and doing some things with him,” Robiskie said. “I think we’ll do the same. To sit down and say, he’s going to be a slot or he’s going to be an outside (receiver) … we are going to try to move him around and match him up on some people and hopefully see if we can get some mismatches.”
Armstrong looks forward to unleashing Hester.
“It’s like anything else, when we were going against him, guys knew that you went to bed at night, you went to sleep with your fist balled up,” Armstrong said. “It’s the same thing. Now, that he’s on our team, we’ll see the best that other people have.”