"For the past eight seasons we have been honored to have Devin Hester as a part of our organization," general manager Phil Emery said Thursday in a statement. "While Devin has redefined the pinnacle standard of the return position in the NFL, the memories and contributions he has given us cannot be measured by stats or numbers.
"Not only is Devin a special player, he is also an exceptional person. He is a great teammate, husband and father. Devin represented the organization off the field as well as he did on it. When his career is over, he will always be a welcome member of the Bears family. We thank him for his dedication and wish him and his family all the best."
Hester, 31, is the NFL's all-time leader in punt return touchdowns (13) and total kick return touchdowns (18). Including his 108-yard missed field goal return touchdown, Hester's 19 overall return touchdowns are tied with Hall of Famer Deion Sanders for the most in regular-season history. When adding Hester's 92-yard kickoff return touchdown to open Super Bowl XLI, his 20 overall return touchdowns (including the postseason) are an NFL record.
In 123 games played (46 starts) over eight seasons (2006-13), Hester's 3,241 punt return yards are eighth most in NFL history and his 12.3 punt return average ranks fifth. He is the franchise's all-time leader in total return touchdowns, punt return touchdowns, punt return yards, kickoff return yards (5,504), total kick return yards (8,745) and second in all-purpose yards (11,632).
A three-time Pro Bowler (2006, 2007 and 2010 seasons), Hester was named to the 2000's All-Decade team by the Associated Press and ESPN.
Prior to the team's announcement, Hester had said, "From my knowledge, I know that Chicago wants to go a different route with me. All I can say is thanks to the fans for their support. They've always been great to me. Always been loyal. I couldn't have played for a better city than those guys. At the end of my career, I do want to retire as a member of the Bears."
He then was open in saying he hopes to land in Tampa Bay where his former head coach, Lovie Smith is coaching.
"I look at Lovie as my No. 1 coach right now because he's the one that took a chance on me coming out of the draft," Hester said. "He has all my respect so if he's a guy that is going to shoot at me and want me to come play with him again, my arms are open."
--With 25 players entering some form of free agency next month, second-year head coach Marc Trestman is prepared for another offseason of change.
Trestman said defensive end Julius Peppers, who if released would leave the Bears with $8 million in so-called dead money, "like a lot of us had 8-8 seasons." His return might require a restructured contract. Salary-cap money could be tight with veteran cornerback Charles Tillman and defensive tackle Henry Melton on the road to unrestricted free agency while rehabbing from season-ending injuries.
"He had very, very good moments and moments where he didn't play as well as he would have liked," Trestman said of Peppers.
The Bears will be primarily a 4-3 defense and retained coordinator Mel Tucker after briefly considering a 3-4 scheme.
"What we're doing is looking at the existing scheme and in the process of putting together a scheme that suits the players we will have," Trestman said. "We're not going to know who those players are going to be for quite some time."
Trestman said the Bears will be younger on defense, and general manager Phil Emery has bluntly pointed to investing draft picks to rebuild on that side of the ball.
One area of need is the secondary. Safety Major Wright is a free agent and arguably the most high-profile free agent, Tillman, said Tuesday he wants to return and the Bears want him back, but finances must be worked out.
"We know we're going to get younger," Trestman said. "For the most part, it's going to be a defensive-oriented draft in terms of where we're going."
Trestman said he talks to Melton on a daily basis. Emery raised questions about his dedication to football but the staff has largely praised his unique skill set. Along with Melton and Tillman, versatile defensive lineman Corey Wootton is a free agent. He could be coveted because, in Emery's words, he "transcends scheme" but is coming off hip surgery.
Tucker was retained despite a dismal statistical season. The Bears were 32nd against the run and yards per play and 30th in total defense. Trestman pointed to injuries to weak-side linebacker Lance Briggs and Tillman not only for their on-field ability but also the toll losing locker-room leaders had on a green defense.
In lockstep with Emery, Trestman reviewed the season game-by-game to quantify the root of the areas of concern, and the decision was made to retain Tucker. Trestman said most of the same qualities that stood out in their initial interview rose to the forefront.
"His ability to communicate, his understanding of the defense at all three levels and his understanding of adapting and assimilating the defense, and his ability to lead men," Trestman said. "At the end of the season that did not change."
Change will now be embraced.
From the time Trestman spoke at the Scouting Combine in 2013, the Bears added 10 players to their offense and worked them into a scheme that evolved throughout the season.
--Bears linebacker Lance Briggs admitted sadness following the recent release of kick returner Devin Hester.
Said Briggs, "It's sad, man. For a guy like me - and I know Peanut (cornerback Charles Tillman)and Brian (former linebacker Brian Urlacher) have been here a long time - we've seen a lot of guys come and go. I think we all know our time is coming. But it's sad when it does. And I hate to see a guy like Devin, and what he's meant to this city and to the Bears organization, not brought back. It's hard with the bond that you build with all your brothers. It kinda just sucks."
Briggs is holding out hope that Tillman will end up re-signing.
"One of my brothers didn't get a chance to come back this past year, and hopefully the other one gets to stay," Briggs said. "We'll see."
As for when his departure will occur, the wistful Briggs said, "When my time comes, I don't expect anything more or less than a tweet saying, 'We're parting ways with Lance.' It's not gonna hurt my feelings or anything like that."
--The Shea McClellin question has been answered by Chicago Bears general Phil Emery.
Now it's up to the 2012 first-round Bears draft pick to answer the call to arms.
Ineffective over two seasons as a defensive end, McClellin is being moved to linebacker. Emery said at Thursday's NFL Scouting Combine that McClellin will compete both at middle linebacker and strong-side linebacker.
"He is a perfect candidate to be on the field all downs in some capacity, whether that is blitzing, rushing, playing against the run in run personnel, but he is going to have to compete for his job," Emery said. "He could win that job at SAM (strong side). He could win that job at MIKE (middle)."
While Emery said McClellin could be used rushing the passer off the edge, this is not a situation where the former Boise State star is specializing on only passing downs.
"Competition (for McCellin) right now is Jon Bostic, Khaseem Greene and it's Shea," Emery said. "Obviously we feel that Lance Briggs is our weak (side) starter."
It's also possible, Emery said, that McClellin will have to compete in the middle with D.J. Williams if the veteran free agent signs back with the Bears. Williams suffered a torn left pectoral muscle last year near mid-season and the Bears used Bostic there for nine starts as a rookie. James Anderson was the strong-side linebacker last year, and is a free agent. The Bears have been non-committal toward bringing Anderson back.
"If we add back a D.J. Williams or another player, that player will be involved in that competitive mix and it's best person wins those two spots," Emery said.
The Bears are not changing to a 3-4 alignment, so this means McClellin would be expected to cover in passing situations at times, just like any other 4-3 linebacker.
"We see it every day on the practice field," Emery said. "We see it on the game field. Adrian Peterson isn't used much in the passing game, but (McClellin) was one-on-one with him and had no trouble covering him (on pass routes).
"The guy has very good hips, very good quickness and very good speed for his position. His size is something that's rare for us at SAM 'backer. Nick Roach was our SAM 'backer (two years ago). There's a big difference in size there. (McClellin) is going to be our biggest linebacker."
McClellin told Emery he weighs about 260 now and will be expected to be at 248 to 252 pounds. McClellin will still get to be a pass rusher at times.
"I think Shea is really excited about it, just the opportunity to get off the ball, to be able to run and do some things," coach Marc Trestman said. "And that doesn't mean Shea won't be a pass rusher. But his skill set is speed. I'm really excited to see how this evolves with him. And most importantly, he's excited about it."
McClellin had four sacks and 14 hurries last year. He was the 19th pick of the 2012 draft and the first one by Emery as general manager. Emery passed on Chandler Jones and Whitney Mercilus in making the pick.
Trestman said new Bears linebackers coach Reggie Herring evaluated McClellin coming out of Boise State and saw the skills to play in space.
"And that was great to hear and great to know," Trestman said. "So he's excited about working with him and certainly he is as big of an expert as we have on this staff in terms of the ability of developing a linebacker. So we are excited about it."
--Coach Marc Trestman explained the decision to bring back coordinator Mel Tucker after the Bears ranked last against the run on defense.
"We felt we had to do some things," he said about changes made to the defensive coaching staff, "but the starting point was we felt Mel could lead and coach the defense."
Trestman and Emery evaluated all the players and coaches after the season ended. Trestman thought Tucker had a lot to do, learning the defensive system that the Bears already used instead of using his own system, and then coaching that system.
"I had confidence in him from the beginning that he could do that," Trestman said. "At the end of the season that did not change."
--Although Emery has said the Bears will not change from a 4-3, it's obvious they plan on being able to move into a 3-4 if they feel the matchup is better. One indication is the Bears brought in assistants Paul Pasqualoni (line) and Herring.
"These guys have 3-4 backgrounds," Trestman said. "We think we've put together a staff of guys who can really incorporate and be flexible with the players we're going to have going through this process. We're going to start from the 4-3 but we've got to be flexible in our scheme to move people around and have the ability to get it done and not just do it because we see other teams doing it -- but doing it because we have the skill set and experience to be able to do it."
--The days when the Bears always looked for smaller, faster defensive linemen to fit the cover-2 style defensive scheme seems to be history.
Asked what he's looking for in defensive linemen in the draft, Emery said: "I'll just say that my personal preference is bigger is always better as long as you're not sacrificing athleticism and speed. This is a fast game, but it's a very physically tough, impactful game and you need bigger bodies over time to win those matchups."
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--Quarterback Josh McCown, scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency Tuesday, said he is hopeful of getting a chance to start somewhere. McCown told ESPN Radio, "We've talked to four teams. There have been good discussions and we'll take those as they come and evaluate those situations."
McCown played well while with the Bears last season, and while he said loves it there, he would only leave for a legitimate opportunity to start.
"To leave Chicago it will be a situation where I'm looking to compete to start, or to start, and to grow more as a player," McCown said. "The only way you can do that as a player is on the field. So that will definitely be something that we're looking at."
He did admit some surprise at how his career has been resurrected. McCown said, "Two years ago I was coaching high school football. You never know what's going to happen."
--The Bears agreed to terms with defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff on a two-year contract keeping him from becoming an unrestricted free agent on March 11.
Ratliff started four of the five games he played for the Bears in 2013 after signing with the team in November, recording 14.5 tackles - including 1.5 sacks and one tackle for a loss.
During Ratliff's nine-year career with Dallas (2005-12) and Chicago, the four-time Pro Bowler (2008-2011) has started 89 of 109 games played, recording 331.5 tackles - including 28.5 sacks and 26 tackles for loss - 13 fumble recoveries and five forced fumbles.
--The Bears also signed defensive end Trevor Scott to a one-year contract on Thursday (March 6).
The 6-foot-5, 260-pound Scott has appeared in 76 games with 18 starts over six seasons with Oakland (2008-11), New England (2012) and Tampa Bay (2013), registering 94 tackles -- including 16 1/2 sacks and 21 tackles for losses.
He was released by the Buccaneers on Oct. 24.
Sunday, the Bears re-signed potential unrestricted free agents, defensive tackle Nate Collins and quarterback Jordan Palmer.
--Punter Adam Podlesh was released by the Bears on Wednesday, a move that had been expected since the end of the 2013 season.
Podlesh, a seven-year veteran, would have counted $1.87 million against the 2014 salary cap. He averaged a career-low 40.6 yards per punt last season with the Bears.
He signed with Chicago as an unrestricted free agent in 2011 to replace Brad Maynard after four seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
He averaged 42.3 yards per punt and a net average of 39.4 yards in three seasons with the Bears.
--The Bears signed veteran center Roberto Garza to a one-year contract.
The 6-foot-2, 310-pound Garza started all 16 games for the Bears' record-breaking offense in 2013. Garza was a part of an offensive line that allowed just 30 sacks last season, tied for fourth fewest in the NFL, and helped pave way for Pro Bowl running back Matt Forte's career-high 1,339 rushing yards, which ranks ninth-most in franchise history and more than any Bears player other than Hall of Famer Walter Payton.
All five starters along the 2013 Bears offensive line are now under contract for the 2014 season.
Garza was slated to become an unrestricted free agent on March 11.
"I'm excited to keep playing and playing for a great franchise and a great city," Garza said. "Everybody knows that I wanted to stay here. With the guys that I'm playing with, everything is coming together. I feel it's a great opportunity to build on what we started last year.
"Everybody's coming back and we're going to be in the same system for the second year. We did some good things last year, but there's a lot of stuff we have to build on and correct and do better. It's going to be fun to watch the film from last year and get better at things that are going to make us a better football team."
The two-time team captain (2012-13) was part of a Bears offense that set a franchise record for total net yards (6,109), gross passing yards (4,450), net passing yards (4,281), passer rating (96.9), completion percentage (64.4), total first downs (344) and passing first downs (215), while finishing second in franchise annals in total points (445) last season. Chicago's 45 offensive touchdowns in 2013 were fifth most in franchise history and most in the Super Bowl era.
"Roberto is an outstanding player and person," head coach Marc Trestman said. "He is as hard-working a player as we have and an unselfish leader. He is tremendously important in our preparation by quarterbacking the offensive line both in run and pass protection. He anchors everything we do up front and we're thrilled to have him back."
Carrying 13 years of NFL experience with Atlanta (2001-04) and Chicago (2005-13), Garza has started 164 of 194 games played in his career, including appearing in all 16 contests during 10 seasons (2001, 2004-09 and 2011-13). He has made starts at each of the interior lineman spots, while helping pave the way for a 1,000-yard rusher in seven of the last 10 campaigns, including six with Chicago.
Garza started both guard positions for the Bears from 2005-10 before taking over the center position in 2011 where he has anchored the line for 48 straight contests.
"When you're around Roberto on a day-to-day basis, you realize he's a better person and leader than he is a player and we think he's a very good player," offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer said. "It was important for us to get him back. We're excited to have him back. He's a veteran presence in the (offensive line) room. He probably had his best year last year so we think he's on the upswing even though he has a lot of years under his belt. We think he can be very productive for us again this upcoming year."
The Bears also re-signed tight end Dante Rosario and cornerback Kelvin Hayden to one-year deals, knocking two more potential unrestricted free agents off their list.
Hayden has started 49 of 101 games in nine seasons with the Indianapolis Colts (2005-10), Atlanta Falcons (2011) and Bears (2012-13). The former second-round draft pick has 345 tackles, 12 interceptions, three return touchdowns, 44 pass deflections, four forced fumbles and six fumble recoveries.
Hayden missed all of last season after being placed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury. In 2012, he had 40 tackles (26 solo), one interception, three pass deflections and tied for the NFL lead with four opponent fumble recoveries in 16 games.
--The Bears re-signed safety Derrick Martin and center Taylor Boggs.
Martin, who was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, played seven games last season. He signed with the Bears after cornerback Charles Tillman's season-ending triceps injury. Martin mainly played on special teams.
Boggs played just one game for the Bears last year. He was set to be an exclusive rights free agent before re-signing. He could compete for the starting center spot if Roberto Garza leaves via free agency, but is more likely to be a backup.
Scheduled to be unrestricted Tuesday
--LB James Anderson
--CB Zack Bowman
--T-G Eben Britton
--DT Landon Cohen
--LB Blake Costanzo
--KR-PR Devin Hester
--LS Patrick Mannelly
--DT Henry Melton
--QB Josh McCown
--CB Sherrick McManis
--T Jonathan Scott
--S Craig Steltz
--CB Charles Tillman
--LB D.J. Williams
--DL Corey Wootton
--S Major Wright
DEFENSIVE TACKLE: Someone to help plug the inside and also provide interior pass rush pressure is needed, since Henry Melton's return is no given after knee surgery.
DEFENSIVE END: If Julius Peppers is really to be cut, this is a line without a pass rush threat. Someone is needed to scare quarterbacks off the edge.
SAFETY: Chris Conte's confidence is shot and he doesn't have needed speed. Major Wright has proven himself average at best and he is a free agent.
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