FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Star return specialist Devin Hester was released by the Atlanta Falcons on Tuesday following an injury-shortened 2015 season.
The 33-year-old Hester is a three-time All-Pro who set an NFL record with 20 career returns for touchdowns. He began his career with the Chicago Bears before signing a three-year, $9 million deal with Atlanta before the 2014 season.
A turf toe injury knocked out most of his season in 2015. He had 269 total return yards during the last five games of the year. He had surgery in January, preventing him from full participation in offseason workouts.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff said the decision to release Hester — two days before the first practice of training camp — was about more than the toe injury.
“He passed his physical,” Dimitroff said Tuesday. “It was a football decision for us at the very end. Not to be evasive about it, we wish him all the luck. We think it’s best for the organization for us to move forward.”
Coach Dan Quinn said wide receiver Eric Weems will continue to work on punt and kickoff returns. Wide receivers Justin Hardy, Nick Williams and Devin Fuller, a rookie, also will compete on punt returns. Running back Tevin Coleman, the top backup to starter Devonta Freeman, is an option on kickoff returns.
The long list of candidates on returns was a factor in the move.
“We’ve got some guys we’re pretty pumped up about to see what they can do,” Quinn said.
Hester apparently saw his release coming. On Wednesday, he posted on his Twitter account “That look on your face when they count you out!!!!!#motivation”
Hester was drafted by the Bears as a cornerback from Miami in 2006. He switched to wide receiver and has 255 career catches for 3,311 yards and 16 touchdowns. He had 38 catches for 504 yards with Atlanta in 2014.
Hester holds the record with 14 punt returns for touchdowns, including a 68-yarder with the Falcons in 2014. He had a career-high four punt returns for touchdowns in 2007, when he also returned two kickoffs for scores.
Quinn described Hester as “a guy I have tons of respect for.”
“Devin is a real pro so we wish him nothing but the best,” he added.
Players report Wednesday and open camp Thursday.