Home > NFL > Value Analysis: Devin Hester and DeSean Jackson are more similar than you think

Value Analysis: Devin Hester and DeSean Jackson are more similar than you think

Chicago Bears punt returner Devin Hester runs towards the end zone on an 89-yard punt return during the fourth quarter against the Seattle Seahawks at Soldier Field in Chicago on October 17, 2010. The Seahawks won 23-20.   UPI/Brian Kersey Photo via Newscom

One way or another, it’s likely that the Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles will meet up again in the divisional round of the postseason, and this got me wondering which team has the more valuable ‘X’ factor.  DeSean Jackson’s punt return against the Giants likely won the NFC East in 2010.  Just one day later, Devin Hester set the all-time return record for the NFL.  This was a big weekend for both big-play players.

If you could only have one of them, I think the consensus is that you’d probably want DeSean Jackson.  After all, who can blame you for wanting such a dynamic gamebreaker?  I’ve done some analysis on them, and really, I don’t know if there’s a noticeable difference.  I’ll go on record saying the Bears are just as well off with Devin Hester on his current contract as the Eagles are with DeSean Jackson and the megabucks he is certain to get after the season.

Jackson is having his best receiving season as a professional, with his role being best defined as a 1a type receiver to Jeremy Maclin, a number one type.  Jackson truly is unique, with his 22.8 yards per reception leading all of football.  He’s in a better role now as the second most targeted receiver on the Eagles, and six offensive touchdowns to go with his punt return touchdown from Sunday: this is a guy who is amongst the best at his position in terms of both special teams returns and offensive touchdowns.

Hester never got to masquerade as a number one receiver on an NFL offense (well, 2008, I suppose).  But he (and his Bears unit) are clearly the more dynamic return unit.  When you compare the value of a great return game (field position and instant points) to the value of a game breaking receiver, it makes little sense to not take the most valuable player and put him on the punt return.  Coaches are hesitant to do this because of injury risk, but with an emphasis on head injuries in football now, perhaps special teams will be viewed as a far safer way to get their playmakers on the field when the opposing team is weakest.

Hester was clearly a greater player in his first two seasons than Jackson was in his first two.  11 return touchdowns in 2 seasons.  Let’s put some context on that: in his best two season run, Dante Hall scored 7 return touchdowns, and 11 total TDs (13 for Hester).  Brian Mitchell never scored more than 3 times on returns in any two consecutive seasons.  Same for Jackson, thus far at least.  Hester’s 2010 season could actually be his best punt return season ever.  One knock I’ve always had against Hester is that, while he might be the best punt returner ever, he’s not a great kick returner.  He still has four kick return TDs, so he can’t be that terrible, but Hester’s propensity to fumble on those plays without getting an above average amount of yardage on his returns makes him a bad choice to return kicks.  The difficulty of directional punting makes Hester so much more dangerous.

The Eagles never flirted with using DeSean Jackson on kick returns, and while the Bears will put Hester back there every once in awhile just to keep a kickoff team honest, what we’re really looking at is the relative values of two punt returners, and two complementary receivers.  To put their punt return values in the same stratosphere would be folly: Hester is going to break 500 punt return yards for the third time in his career this season.  Jackson will have never done it.  If we give 40 yard bonuses for touchdowns, now were talking about Hester having twice as much value in terms of field position and point estimates as Jackson on special teams.  And that’s if we put his kick returns at a level of zero contribution.

Hester was also a very comparable receiver to Jackson, at least up until this year.  Hester had been trending upwards in value every year since he took up offense in 2007, culminating in a 750 yard, 3 TD 2009 season where Hester was above the influence of a horrible offense.  Hester typically runs short drags, slants, hitches, and other middle routes.  Jackson goes vertical more often than any other starting WR in football.  This year, it’s not all that close, as Jackson has been having his best receiving season thanks to the development of Maclin, and Hester has dropped to the third option on the Bears offense.  Hester is still a much more refined red zone target than Jackson is, but for the first 80 yards of the field, Jackson is clearly the better player.

Because of his offensive contributions, Jackson has averaged about 8 scores per season in his career to just 5 for Hester.  But Jackson’s contribution to the field position battle are both overstated, and really aren’t even above average.  Jackson led the league in punt return yards last year with 15.2/return.  This year, Hester leads it with 16.4, and Jackson is back down to a below average returner, with his return against the Giants being his first TD of the season.

I think I’d take DeSean Jackson 2009-10 over Devin Hester during the same two seasons.  But I would not take DeSean Jackson 2009-10 over Hester from 2006-07.  Then, when you factor in that Hester has posted fairly consistent year to year values and contributions, and the fact that this year might be Hester’s BEST return year in his career (especially so if he gets a fourth TD in the final two weeks), and he’s already 28, it’s much easier to look at Hester’s future productivity in line with the longevity of a Brian Mitchell, who was returning kicks for TD’s into his mid-thirties.  Jackson will have receiving value into his late 20s, or into the middle of the next decade.  After that, Jackson might be a player on a bad contract, caused by his dominance in his first three seasons.  Hester had a contract that looked bad when it was signed — right now, it looks like a pretty good deal for the Bears.

Right now, Jackson is the better overall player.  Because Hester’s not done, and because the Eagles might not always be able to support the vertical offense they currently have, combined with the fact that Jackson won’t always be able to outrun everyone on the field, I feel confident in suggesting that their value is quite similar, and perhaps even that Hester will endure the test of time better than Jackson.

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  1. December 28, 2010 at 9:14 pm

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