There has been a lot of hubbub surrounding the Chicago Bears offseason signing of wide receiver/special teamer Eric Weems. Many people are worried that he will be replacing Devin Hester on returns, so Hester can concentrate on only being a receiver. Personally, I’m not buying it. If Weems is here to replace anyone, it’s Johnny Knox. Hester should be the punt returner and Weems should be the kickoff returner.
I’ll start off by saying that kickoff returns are quickly becoming extinct in the NFL due to the kickoffs moving up to the 35-yard line. In 2010, 31 of 32 teams averaged more than three kickoff returns per game compared to only 7 of 32 teams in 2011. The Bears ranked second last year with 3.5 kickoff returns per game, but I think that number will decline as teams are looking for stronger-legged kickers.
Hester has rarely had a great kickoff return year. Yes, he’s had some good returns (5 KO return TDs), but he only averages 23.6 yards per return. With Brandon Marshall as the No. 1 receiver, I think Hester will become a better weapon as a No. 3 receiver and punt returner. He won’t be as important as a kickoff returner.
Eric Weems has proven to be a capable returner (career average of 25.6 yards per KO return) and will be taking the returns that Knox had last year. He should be the No. 1 kickoff returner and Hester should be used only if the Bears need a miracle. Pulling Hester in too many directions (punts, kicks, wide receiver…) is just asking for mediocrity.
Not only can Weems return kicks, he is also a great gunner on punt returns. With the loss of Corey Graham, Weems will fill in nicely covering kicks. He has had 10+ special teams tackles over the last three seasons. You know how much Lovie Smith loves his special teams guys, so expect to see the veteran Weems often in this role. This is where he should help out the Bears the most.
Finally, Weems had a limited role as a wide receiver with the Atlanta Falcons, but has shown to be a very capable No. 5 or No. 6 guy. I expect him to eclipse his career high of 11 catches for 90 yards last season in a Bears wide receiving core that lacks depth. He’s quick in the slot and Lovie will use him on short yardage plays crossing over the middle or as a decoy to get Marshall and Earl Bennett open. It’s possible Weems could even step into the No. 4 receiver spot if he flourishes with Cutler at the helm.
So, Eric Weems isn’t here to exploit the Devin “No. 1 Receiver” Hester experiment. He’s here to allow Hester to stick to punt returns and continue developing as a mid-level receiver, contribute on special teams coverage, and add some depth to the receiving core. Trust me when I tell you this, his presence will be felt throughout the season in many ways, and you’ll be happy he’s on the Bears. Best case scenario, he could return to the Pro Bowl as a special teamer like he did after the 2010 season. Worst case scenario, he saves Hester some wear and tear on kickoffs. It’s a win-win situation.
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