Devin Hester set records and was briefly an electric presence with the Atlanta Falcons, while Dwight Freeney was the invaluable veteran mentor for a young Falcons defensive line. While neither one will go into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as Falcons, they are now in Canton.
Hester and Freeney were two of the seven players elected to the 2024 class for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, joining Julius Peppers, Andre Johnson, Patrick Willis, and senior selections Randy Gradishar and Steve McMichael. It’s a deserving class that makes me feel old—all of these guys feel like they were just playing yesterday to me—and it’s gratifying to see two players we loved watching with Atlanta make it.
We’ll start with Hester. He joined Atlanta during the ill-fated 2014 season and proved to be one of the few bright spots that season, piling up 504 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns on 38 grabs and managing a rushing touchdown. Naturally, his finest work was as a returner—that’s why he’s going to the Hall of Fame in the first place—averaging over 25 yards on kick returns and over 13 yards as a punt returner. He also broke the legendary Deion Sanders’ record for total return touchdowns by housing a punt in an absolute blowout of the Buccaneers that season, making his brief tenure with the Falcons a memorable footnote in his great career. Hester had a much quieter 2015 season, but 2014 was a great year for him, if not for the team.
In totality, Hester finished his career 12th in kick returns and kick return yardage, as well as tied for 9th in kick return touchdowns. He was an even better punt returner, ranking 5th in returns, 3rd in punt return yardage, and by far first in punt return touchdowns, with his 14 a full four scores above the next player on the list, which is former Falcon Eric Metcalf.
Freeney spent just a single season in Atlanta, but it was a memorable one for both him and the team. The veteran pass rusher put up three sacks as a rotational option for Atlanta, but his leadership and mentoring made a massive difference for Vic Beasley, who had a career year with him on the roster. That in turn helped the Falcons push their way all the way to the Super Bowl following the 2016 season, and we’ll just stop there.
Freeney’s 125.5 sacks are 18th all-time (26th if you use the unofficial list that counts players from before sacks were an official statistic) and is tied for third with Falcons great John Abraham for career forced fumbles with 47. One of the most disruptive players of his era, Freeney was a seven-time Pro Bowler and three-time first-team All-Pro over the course of a 16 year NFL career.
Congratulations to both players on legendary careers and their Canton nods, and hopefully we’re talking about more Falcons joining the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2025.