ATLANTA — The second year of rebuilding the Falcons roster under Dan Quinn gained momentum when the release of Roddy White helped to define the team’s focus on its future entering free agency and the NFL draft.
White’s exit on Wednesday was dramatic. He is the leading receiver in franchise history and the player who had the longest tenure on the team. White began his career in Atlanta in 2005 with Michael Vick at quarterback. He played under coaches Jim Mora Jr., Bobby Petrino and Mike Smith before Quinn.
The Falcons released two defensive starters, safety William Moore and linebacker Justin Durant, last month. The makeover began when running back Steven Jackson, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, wide receiver Harry Douglas and offensive guard Justin Blalock, among others, were cut before the 2015 season.
White, 34, was only fourth on the team with 43 catches last season, his low total since 2006, his second season. Fans complained he wasn’t given enough chances last season to show he could still join Julio Jones as top targets for quarterback Matt Ryan.
Quinn said he was thinking about more than the 2016 season when considering the decision to release White.
“Although this was a difficult decision, we feel this is best for everyone as we continue to put this team together, not just for the 2016 season, but for the future as well,” Quinn said Wednesday.
The offense was designed around Jones and running back Devonta Freeman last season, making White little more than an observer at times.
White showed no sign of bitterness in a statement he released on his Twitter feed early Thursday. He thanked the Falcons and Atlanta and made clear he plans to continue his career.
“Thank you to the Falcons organization and the city of Atlanta for 11 unforgettable seasons. I will truly miss playing for the fans in the Dome on Sunday. I am beyond grateful to all that supported me throughout this journey and I look forward to the opportunity of continuing my career with a new team,” White tweeted.
White’s release cleared about $2.36 million in the Falcons’ salary cap space.
Ryan posted his farewell to White on his Twitter and Instagram accounts: “An all pro receiver, teammate and leader…an even better friend and person. Will miss having him around everyday.”
Perhaps the most promising development of the up-and-down 8-8 finish in 2015 was the emergence Freeman as a productive all-purpose running back. Tevin Coleman showed he can be a speedy complement to Freeman, making running back a position of strength.
There are major questions at other positions. Top needs include linebacker, the interior offensive line and receiver.
Quinn said he was encouraged by the progress of receiver Justin Hardy, a 2015 rookie. But he said the release of White doesn’t mean Hardy becomes a starter.
“As far as labeling Justin and saying he’s automatically the two, I wouldn’t be willing to go there,” Quinn said.
There is speculation White could find a new home with NFC South rival Tampa Bay, where former Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is the new coach. Koetter’s defensive coordinator is Smith.
Quinn said he considered the possibility White could face the Falcons at least twice a season with the Buccaneers.
“Anytime 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.”