Devin Hester's whereabouts on the field this season will be closely monitored. His progress as a wide receiver will be tracked by fans and opponents alike and his development is no doubt a critical element to the improvement of the offense.
The Indianapolis Colts, starting Sunday night, will be the first to ask where is No. 23?
Hester started the final three preseason games and using that as a barometer for things to come it's fair to assume he will be in that role along with Brandon Lloyd. How much Hester is employed at wide receiver could impact his future wearing No. 23. It's an interesting sidenote as he develops as a receiver because it's not in the group of numbers that can be assigned to full-time wide receivers according to Rule 5, Section 1, Article 2 of the NFL rulebook.
When Hester joined the Bears as a rookie in 2006, he was assigned No. 23 because he was a cornerback. Provided he remains primarily a kick and punt returner, at least according to the club's latest roster, he's perfectly fine wearing No. 23. If he becomes a full-fledged starter at receiver, playing the bulk of the game there, it could become an issue the league has to address. According to the NFL rulebook:
"If a player changes his position during his playing career in the NFL, and such change moves him out of a category specified above, he must be issued an appropriate new jersey numeral."
The last player who publicly fought to get an exception was New Orleans running back Reggie Bush, who was intent on wearing No. 5, the number he had as a star at USC. Bush lost out and wears No. 25. When it comes to uniforms and conformity, league rules are pretty hard and fast. When Peyton Manning requested to wear high-tops for one game in tribute to Johnny Unitas following his death, he was told no. Defensive tackle Tommie Harris requested to switch to No. 97, the number he wore at Oklahoma, when it became free after Michael Haynes was released at the end of the summer in 2006. He was told no and the reason he was given was that it was about the money. Too many No. 91 jerseys were out there, Harris said.
Hester's case is different than Bush's. Hester is an established player in the league. Bush was just entering it. But the rules are the rules. None of the parties involved, the league included, would seem to be real interested in a change. For starters, there have to be boxes of Hester No. 23 jerseys stacked in warehouses all over the country. Forget about the ones hanging on racks in stores nationwide. There are jerseys waiting to make it to stores that already have a 2 and 3 on them. In this instance, the most important numbers become the dollar figures involved. No. 23 jerseys might have to go on clearance if he was wearing new digits.
Provided he remains a major contributor on special teams there are other things that could be factored in. With Hester's versatility, he can be lined up in the backfield from time to time and No. 23 works for a running back. But you're not going to see him listed as a running back on the roster. It's highly unlikely any kind of change would ever take place during the season, and it's likely he would have to become a full-time receiver before it became an issue. The coaching staff says he has the ability to be a No. 1 receiver. We'll see how involved he is from the start on Sunday.
Here's a look at the specific rule involved, directly from the rulebook:
Rule 5, Section 1, Article 2
All players must wear numerals on their jerseys in accordance with Rule 5, Section 4, Article 3(c).
Such numerals must be by playing position, as follows:
(a) quarterbacks, punters, and placekickers: 1-19;
(b) running backs and defensive backs: 20-49;
(c) centers: 50-59 (60-79 if 50-59 are unavailable);
(d) offensive guards and tackles: 60-79;
(e) wide receivers: 10-19 and 80-89;
(f) tight ends: 80-89;
(g) defensive linemen: 60-79 (90-99 if 60-79 are unavailable); and
(h) linebackers: 50-59 (90-99 if 50-59 are unavailable).
If a player changes his position during his playing career in the NFL, and such change moves him out of a category specified above, he must be issued an appropriate new jersey numeral.
Any request to wear a numeral for a special position not specified above (e.g., H-back) must be made to the Commissioner.