The Devin Hester Conundrum


The Devin Hester Conundrum

ALAMEDA -- The last time the Raiders faced Chicago and electric returner Devin Hester, on Nov. 11, 2007, Shane Lechler punted the ball right at him and dared Hester to bust one free.This time around?"As far as I'm concerned, no, it's not the same attitude right now," Lechler said Wednesday. "That guy's too dangerous. With them getting a new quarterback in there, (Hester's) going to be the big-play guy. I'm not sure yet what we're going to do, but I'm going to try to at least make him run sideways early, and we'll go from there."CSNChicago: Hester held out of practice Thursday
Four years ago, Hester returned six of Lechler's nine punts -- two were downed and a third went out of bounds -- for a total of just 14 yards, with a long return of nine yards.
Indeed, Lechler and the Raiders kept Hester in check that day (his 64-yard return was nullified by a holding penalty on Brendon Ayanbadejo). And still, Lechler fears letting him get the Bears going on Sunday at the Coliseum. And for good reason.In his sixth season, Hester is now the NFL's all-time career leader in punt returns for touchdowns with 12 and also has five kickoff returns for scores. Including the playoffs, he has 19 career total return TDs (12 punt return, six kickoff return, one missed field-goal return) to tie him with Deion Sanders for most in league history."Hester has a lot of good guys playing around him," Lechler added. "Watching them on film, they all play hard. The thing is, that punt return unit believes they're going to take it to the house every time he gets the ball. When you're playing with that much belief, you're very dangerous. We're going to do our very best to neutralize that part of the game."Hester's career-best 21.2 yards average on punt returns this season is leading the NFL and he already has two returns for TDs. The Raiders have surrendered the most punt return yardage in the league and have the fifth-worst average at 14.5 yards.
"A guy like Hester, man, you've got to respect, first and foremost," said Raiders receiver Louis Murphy, who has also found work as a gunner on Oakland's punt team. "You've got to respect what he's done in this league, who he is, and you've got to go out there and try and contain him, try and stop him."Quentin Groves agreed."As a coverage unit and as a special teams unit, you live for these challenges," Groves said. "If you want to be the best, and that's what we pride ourselves onyou're going to have to go against the best in the league. And right now, he's the best in the league."Mike Mitchell, though, had a differing opinionsomewhat."He's the best besides Jacoby (Ford), you can quote that, too," Mitchell said. "Extremely fast, he has great vision and his blockers really do a great job blocking for him, too. It's not a lot of times you see him making guys miss. He's getting great blocks and then he might break one tackle."Mitchell does not want to shy away from Hester and agreed with Bears coach Lovie Smith's assessment that coaches cannot tell their players to not kick it to Hester, lest it affect his own team's confidence."Not a chance," Mitchell said. "I mean, if you're a man."As a punt unit, I feel like we have the best weapon in the league in Shane Lechler. We're going to punt to anybody. I don't think we're afraid to punt to a specific player. Like we said this week getting ready for this game, he has to play us. We don't have to play him. He has to worry more about 11 guys trying to take his head off than we do about him housing one."The Raiders have surrendered two punt returns for scores this season, a 90-yarder by Denver's Eric Decker in the season opener at Denver and an 85-yarder by the Broncos' Eddie Royal on Nov. 6.So Raiders special team coach John Fassel has some serious scheming to do. Not that Mitchell wants to deviate from the plan up to this point."We have the biggest, fastest guys in the league covering our punts," Mitchell said. "We just have to get down field and outrun their protection team and make tackles. After (Hester) gets machine-gunned a couple of times, he's not going to be too quick to return punts."Im not talking any trash eitherI think he's awesome. But our mentality is, he has to play us."Then the Raiders have to punt the ball to Hester.

Donald Penn: Raiders players trust McKenzie will add right pieces

Donald Penn: Raiders players trust McKenzie will add right pieces

The Raiders were pretty darn good last season. A 12-4 record proved that point. There was plenty of talent on a team with a penchant for high-wire acts in victory that masked the fact there were holes on the roster.

They need to be filled for the Raiders to improve in 2017, and new players will be imported through free agency and the draft.

Left tackle Donald Penn is excited to see who gets added, but said there’s no doubt talent is coming to Oakland. He speaks for Raiders players, who have faith that general manager Reggie McKenzie will make the right moves.

“Things that Reggie has done in past drafts have been great, and we’re looking forward to seeing what he brings back towards us,” Penn said recently during an in-studio appearance on NFL Network. “We can’t wait to get back out there healthy. We’re ready to hit the football world with a storm.”

While new guys are coming, a few might head out. The Raiders have several unrestricted free agents. Penn wants to keep his guys around – he mentioned running back Latavius Murray by name -- though he has some ideas for McKenzie’s checklist.

The Raiders don’t need much with most key players under contract – the Raiders should be less active in free agency over past offseasons – but a few key components could put this team over the top.

“If we stick to Reggie’s plan, we’ll be great,” Penn said. “I know he’s going to have a great draft, add a couple little pieces here and there – maybe somebody in the secondary to help out a little bit.

"On offense, you could always use a weapon. Maybe we get another receiver to take (pressure off Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper), but we have a good nucleus right now.”

Raiders LT Donald Penn: QB Derek Carr 'almost 100 percent'

Raiders LT Donald Penn: QB Derek Carr 'almost 100 percent'

Derek Carr is on the mend. The Raiders franchise quarterback had surgery to repair his fibula shortly after he broke it in a Week 16 victory over Indianapolis, and is recovering well during the offseason.

Carr insisted on intense rehab this winter in an attempt – however unlikely it may have been – to return should the Raiders have played in the Super Bowl. It slowed to a normal pace after the Raiders' loss at Houston in the postseason’s opening round, but those in contact with him say he’s making strides.

Left tackle Donald Penn was recently in contact with Carr, and provided an update on Monday during an in-studio appearance on NFL Network.

“I texted Derek (a few) days ago checking in,” Penn said, “and he said he’s almost 100 percent.”

Surgically-repaired broken filbulas take significant time to heal, and the Raiders plan to be conservative with their MVP candidate during the offseason. Derek Carr’s brother and NFL Network analyst David Carr, who was on set with Penn on Monday, said Derek could be back for offseason work.

“He’s doing good,” David Carr said. “He’s walking around already, stretching it out. You can’t do a lot for the bone, right? But he’s going to be back. He’s going to get a whole full offseason in. That’s going to be the best part.”