ATLANTA (AP) From his vantage point in Chicago, Devin Hester saw the Atlanta Falcons as a consistent playoff contender.
As a free agent, Hester, 31, was looking for a new home that could give him a good chance to get back to the postseason. He said that was a big reason he signed with Atlanta – despite the Falcons’ 4-12 finish last season.
Now Hester is anxious for the Falcons to play like a winner when Atlanta starters get an extended look in their third preseason game against Tennessee on Saturday night. The Falcons struggled in last week’s ugly 32-7 preseason loss at the Texans.
”It’s going to be very important,” Hester said. ”Coming off the game we played last week, we left a lot of plays out there. We know the fourth preseason game is pretty much for the rookies and the younger guys, so we know this is our last opportunity to really showcase what we’re capable of.”
Hester provided one of Atlanta’s few highlights last week with his 12-yard touchdown catch.
Hester is best known as one of the top return specialists in NFL history. The opportunity to contribute on offense was another reason he signed a three-year, $9 million deal with Atlanta in March.
He didn’t have a catch last year with the Bears for the first time since his rookie season. He has a chance to be a part of three- and four-receiver formations in Atlanta with Julio Jones, Roddy White and Harry Douglas.
”We were all on the same page with the situation on offense,” Hester said of his talks with the Falcons. ”Looking at it, we kind of discussed what my role would be on the offensive side of the ball, and we saw eye to eye on that. That was one of the main reasons why I chose Atlanta.”
The timing could be perfect for Hester. There will be additional opportunities for receivers to help fill the void left by the retirement of tight end Tony Gonzalez.
”I think those are going to be more distributed to the third and fourth receiver now,” Hester said. ”They pretty much treated Tony like a No. 1or No. 2 receiver the last couple of years. With Tony gone, it’s going to open up more options, I would say, for me and Harry in the slot position when we go three-wide.”
Hester set career highs with 56 catches for 757 yards in 2009 with the Bears. Since then, his role on offense declined.
Tennessee’s Nate Washington said Titans receiver Marc Mariani is another example of a player who has difficulty shedding the tag of a return specialist.
”It can be difficult because a lot of times you can just get labeled as a return man,” Washington said. ”A lot of guys like Marc want to be respected as a receiver also. He has the talent so I’m sure Devin is feeling a little bit similar. Going out there making plays on special teams is one thing, but you always want to be a part of that offense and make sure that team knows and the rest of your community and your fans know you’re a vital part of that offense.”
Hester’s credentials as a return man are unquestioned. He shares the NFL record with Falcons Hall of Famer Deion Sanders with 19 return touchdowns, including a record 13 on punt returns.
He made first-team AP All-Pro honors as a return specialist in 2006, 2007 and 2010.
Hester had an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown last season. As a free agent, his three finalists were Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Arizona.
Hester said the Falcons are ”a team that I knew had a good success in winning games and was always competing in the playoffs.”
”The older you get the more you start looking for the team that’s got a chance for the playoffs and for winning the Super Bowl,” he said.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL
AP Pro Football Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville contributed to this report.
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