BOURBONNAIS, Ill. (AP) - It's that time of year again, so of course the Chicago Bears were predicting a breakout season at receiver for Devin Hester as training camp began.
His position coach was, at least.
"When it comes to Devin, I'm kind of prejudiced, you guys know that," receivers coach Darryl Drake said. "But I just see a lot of improvement in a lot of areas. He's no longer worrying about being the guy, you know, he's just playing. It's not mental. It's just being in the flow. When you've got a great player, you've got to feed him. If Michael Jordan didn't touch the ball he'd have problems, you know because he would demand it. You've got to get him the ball, and you've got to feed him. And he's getting the ball, and he's feeling good about things right now."
It remains to be seen if Hester can finally deliver that breakout season as a receiver. The Bears have predicted big things in the past, but he hasn't quite come through.
A record-setting return specialist, Hester has been productive at times as a receiver, but he just hasn't developed into the go-to target they hoped he would become.
The Bears started using him on offense at the end of the 2007 season and gave him a four-year extension before the following season that runs through 2013 with the idea that he would become a focal point on offense. But it hasn't exactly worked out that way.
He struggled at times to grasp the offense and his route running was an issue. He still had 51 catches for 665 yards in 2008 and set career highs with 57 receptions and 757 yards the following year, but it wasn't quite a big breakout as a receiver.
He also seemed to lose his touch on special teams with no punt or kickoff returns for touchdowns during that span. He rebounded in that area the past two years, running back five punts and a kickoff, but his numbers on offense declined in Mike Martz's system.
Hester went from having 40 catches in 2010 to finishing with 26 for 369 yards last season, his lowest totals since 2007. Now, with Martz out and Mike Tice replacing him as offensive coordinator, Hester believes he'll be in position to succeed.
"This is an offense that I think fits me," he said. "We've got a nice quick game coming along, as well as deep going down the field. If guys want to stack the box with the great running backs we have, it's going to open it up for the receivers."
It doesn't hurt, either, that Brandon Marshall is now in the mix.
The Bears acquired the Pro Bowl receiver in a blockbuster trade, giving Jay Cutler the go-to target he had lacked since the two were together in Denver and sending expectations soaring. Chicago believes it has the talent and depth to challenge in the NFC and make a big run in the playoffs after injuries turned a promising season into a disappointing 8-8 finish.
Hester has been observing Marshall, trying to copy his mechanics in an effort to improve his own game. He also believes Marshall's presence will create opportunities for him and the other receivers.
"Brandon's going to take a lot of pressure off me," Hester said. "A receiver like that, he deserves 15 to 20 balls a game. That's just the type of receiver he is. If he can get that many balls a game, he's going to get a lot of attention."
Can Hester finish with more than 26 catches?
"If he stays healthy, I hope so," Drake said. "If he doesn't have more, then we failed him. I'm sure that he'll have more than 26. The only time he had 26 was when, last year? Whose fault was that? It wasn't his."
Whose was it?
"I don't know," Drake said. "It wasn't mine."
Even though his numbers declined under Martz, Hester believes he benefited working with him and insisted he improved as a receiver.
"Coach Martz helped me out; not only him, but the players that he previously coached as far as Isaac (Bruce), those guys," Hester said. "I really trained with those guys and kind of understand what it takes to be a receiver in the NFL. That really helped out a lot. I would say coach Martz helped me out a lot."
Notes: New DT Brian Price is glad to have a "fresh start" with the Bears after being acquired from Tampa Bay on Thursday. "Man, I'm here with this team, and I'm feeling great," he said. "A couple of months ago, it was nowhere near where I'm at now. Just being here, I feel better, like the weight of the world got lifted off my shoulders. I feel much better." Price had a difficult time in Tampa Bay that included radical surgeries to keep his hamstrings attached to the pelvis, the death of his sister from injuries in a hit-and-run accident and a reported fight with a teammate. He also was unable to finish his conditioning test with the Buccaneers, according to reports. "I just hurt my leg in my first run," he said. "We had to run out of the three-point stance. Just hurt myself. I'm sore, but I'm good." ... : Hester sat out practice Saturday night after tweaking his right ankle, but coach Lovie Smith said he should be ready on Sunday.