Bears missing Hester, top draft pick

By The Associated Press

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. – While the Chicago Bears coped with the absence of holdout return man Devin Hester, another personnel problem confronted them Thursday.

First-round draft pick Chris Williams left practice early due to lower back stiffness.

“When I say there is some stiffness, I don’t know exactly how much, but he couldn’t practice,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “The guys know there’s a difference between pain and injury. It seems like his was more of an injury.”

Williams signed his five-year, $13 million contract just in time to participate in Wednesday’s first practice. Nine-year veteran John St. Clair is the Bears’ other left tackle, and he manned the spot for much of Thursday’s practice, with undrafted free agent Cody Balogh also seeing time.

The Bears line was already shorthanded because Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz is on the physically unable to perform list with an Achilles strain.

“Hopefully it’s not anything serious and we’ll get him out here before long,” Smith said of Williams.

There was no word of progress in talks between the team and Hester’s agent, Eugene Parker.

Hester’s holdout left Bears receivers coach Darryl Drake looking for what he called a “Lou Gehrig” in the receiver corps.

“You tell the guys nobody ever heard of Lou Gehrig until Wally Pipp got sick one day and he was held out,” Drake said. “Next thing you know, Miller Huggins said ‘hey, Gehrig, get in here.'”

Rookie Earl Bennett and veterans Rashied Davis and Mark Bradley made plays Thursday in the passing game.

Davis twice got deep for catches behind the secondary in scrimmage.

Free agent acquisitions Marty Booker and Brandon Lloyd also figure into the Bears plans to replace lost free agent Bernard Berrian, a proven speed threat who could stretch defenses. Booker had a previous stint with the Bears, and Lloyd is a six-year veteran who signed as a free agent.

“We’ve got a lot of guys that have speed, not taking anything from Bernard,” Bradley said. “He was probably the most effective with it. Devin, Earl, myself, there’s a lot of guys out here who can use it effectively and do the things that Bernard accomplished the last two seasons.”

Bradley has only 38 catches in three seasons due largely to an assortment of injuries.

“I believe that’s the only thing that’s really been holding me back from being out on the field,” Bradley said. “You can’t play when you’re hurt.”

Hester figured to be the deep threat despite his inexperience. He made 20 catches in 2007, his first season as a receiver.

“He has the ability to be one of the best I’ve ever coached,” Drake said. “And I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years and I’ve had some great ones – Pro Bowl and MVPs – Hines Ward and Roy Williams, some of those guys. He has the potential to be better than any of them in my opinion.”

The Bears also retooled their return teams without Hester. Davis was the main kick returner while Bennett and cornerback Nate Vasher got a look at punt returner.

“I returned them in college, I’ve been doing it a long time,” Bennett said. “It’s just like fielding a fly ball, and I played baseball in college.”

Players say they understand Hester’s situation, even if he wants a new contract after only two years of his four-year deal.

“He has to do what he has to do for himself and his family,” Davis said. “You can only play this game for so long, and if you have the opportunity to get paid or get a new contract, or whatever, sometimes you have to take advantage of the opportunity.”