The Falcons released 33 year old veteran and return specialist Devin Hester today. The Saints' NFC South rival signed the electrifying returner last season and he thrived in a complementary wide receiver role before ending the season on injured reserve with a turf toe injury. The same injury ended Deion Sanders’ career and should not be taken lightly.
Hester himself recognized his precarious situation. "At the end of the day, I feel like it's going to come down to how my toe feels. If my toe isn't ready, then I can't fault them for letting me go because it's a business. I can't go around thinking I'm safe if I'm not playing. I do understand that. But if I'm healthy, they'd be crazy to let me go. You've got to think about it: I was coming off a Pro Bowl season. It's not like I couldn't do it anymore. I just got hurt preseason last year and that blew the whole season."
Last season, I hoped the Saints would role the dice and sign Hester to bolster the return game. Holding the NFL record for all time return touchdowns, Hester has 14 returned punts and 5 returned kickoffs for touchdowns. Only two of those TDs have come since 2012, however, and the rule changes limiting return opportunities along with age are the most likely reasons for the sudden drop off. As kickoffs are now taken from the 35 yard line instead of the 30, returners often take a knee in the end zone instead of attempting a return.
As much fun as it has been to watch Hester play all these years, his best days are probably behind him. The Saints in the meantime have invested in several interesting young running back/returners including Marcus Murphy and Daniel Lascoe who will have this preseason to fight for a roster spot.
If this release had happened a year earlier and Hester was healthy, I think the Saints wouldn’t be crazy to give him a chance. But with another year around the sun, a debilitating toe injury, and league wide rule changes that limit his impact, the sun has probably set on the idea of Hester playing for the Saints.