FLOWERY BRANCH — Dynamic wide receiver Roddy White, the Atlanta Falcons’ all-time leading receiver, was released on Wednesday.
White, who had two years remaining on his contract, was not anticipating this move.
“It would be a tragedy if I had to leave,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Jeff Schultz just last week.
White, who was on his way to Belize, text messaged back, “I’m out of the country.”
White was set to make base salaries of $2.75 million in 2016 and $3 million in 2017. His release saves the team $2.45 million against their salary cap, but general manager Thomas Dimitroff said White’s contract was not an issue.
Heading into free agency, which commences with the legal tampering period on Saturday, the Falcons are projected to have $33 million under the $155.27 million salary cap.
The Falcons know the release of White could come back to haunt them. Falcons coach Dan Quinn believes White can still play and wouldn’t be surprised if he re-united with former offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and head coach Mike Smith in Tampa Bay. Smith is Koetter’s defensive coordinator.
“Any time you go through the process, you have to expect that, knowing somebody’s history with a certain player,” Quinn said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Roddy ends up on another club just south on I-75. If that happens, it happens not just with our club but other clubs.”
White will go down in history as one of the franchise’s greatest players. The four-time Pro Bowler will certainly be added to the team’s Ring of Honor.
“Roddy is one of the greatest players to ever put on a Falcons uniform, and even more importantly he is a man of tremendous character that I and my entire family have profound personal affection and respect for,” said Falcons owner Arthur Blank. “I have developed a special relationship with him over the years.”
White was selected by the Falcons in the first-round (27th overall) of the 2005 NFL draft from Alabama-Birmingham. After a slow start to his career, White developed into the franchise’s most prolific receiver during the league’s evolution into more of a passing league.
White, 34, amassed 808 catches, 10,863 yards and 63 touchdowns over 11 seasons with the Falcons.
White and the Falcons new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan didn’t see eye-to-eye last season. His production dipped to 43 catches. He was used as a decoy early in the season in favor of Leonard Hankerson, a player who would later be released, and never really became comfortable in the new offense.
White had slowed with age and wear. He went from 125 targets and 80 catches with seven touchdowns in 2014 to 70 targets and 43 catches with one touchdown in 2015.
“Decisions like these are always difficult, but this was one of the most difficult decisions I have been a part of in my years of football,” Dimitroff said. “We have a tremendous amount of respect and gratitude for what Roddy has meant to this community and organization.”
Quinn said the team was still pondering White’s plight when he spoke at the NFL scouting combine last Wednesday.
“Roddy is one of the best competitors and warriors I have ever been around,” Quinn said. “He was one of the first players I reached out to when I was hired here, and I want to thank him for his professionalism and leadership.”
White wanted to stay with the team and run out the tunnel in the new stadium in 2017. White hadn’t spoken with anyone from the team before last week’s NFL scouting combine.
Also, team officials said they were still pondering White’s status as recently as Thursday. After making recent cuts of safety William Moore, defensive tackle Paul Soliai and linebacker Justin Durant, Quinn said it would not be reasonable to conclude that White was safe.
White’s expected to have opportunities if he plans to keep playing.
In addtion to Koetter being in Tampa, former Falcons wide receiver coach Terry Robiskie is the offensive coordinator in Tennessee. Also, George Stewart, who was White’s first position coach, is with the Minnesota Vikings.
The move to release the popular White is not going to play well in the locker room.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who setting up an offseason passing camp for the quarterbacks and receivers, was incredulous at the mere thought of a Falcons team without White.
“I’m hoping it keeps going a long time,” Ryan said before the regular season finale.
After the 2012 season, the Falcons waived running back Michael Turner, even though he still had a year on his contract. Last season, wide receiver Harry Douglas, left tackle Sam Baker, left guard Justin Blalock and running back Steven Jackson all became salary cap casualties.
White signed a four-year, $30 million contract in July 2014.
Ryan and White became one the league’s most productive duos from 2008-12, when White averaged 96 catches per season. He led the league with 115 catches in 2010 and followed up with 100 catches in 2011.
White appeared to be interferred with on the fourth-down play in the NFC championship game against San Francisco on Jan. 20, 2013 that could have propelled the team to its second Super Bowl appearance.
“He’s the best,” Ryan said. “Has been for a long time. Since I’ve been here. Not only on the field, he’s second to none. He’s as great of a competitor that I’ve ever been around.”
The Falcons appear set to move forward with Julio Jones as their top receiver. There is no proven wide receiver on the roster behind Jones, who had a spectacular 2015 season.
The Falcons drafted Justin Hardy in the fourth-round of the 2015 draft. After a slow start, he showed some promise late in the season.
Quinn was singing Hardy’s praises at the combine.
“Justin Hardy made a significant impact,” Quinn said. “One of the things that I most respect about him was that he was a guy who was really working to develop himself. When you walked past one of the meeting rooms and you see he and Juilo watching tape together, talking about separation and beating man to man (coverage).
“That’s a guy who was digging to find it. He’s made a huge impact on us already. The toughness that he displayed on special teams was certainly evident for a guy who had no special teams experience. For him to come in and contribute in that way. His run through the catch ability is exactly what we hoped for. We are expecting big things form Justin in 2016.”
The Falcons heavily scouted the wide receivers at the Senior Bowl and at the NFL combine. They are also reported to have some interest in signing Mohamed Sanu or Travis Benjamin in free agency.