Devin Hester expects to be an Atlanta Falcon, if healthy

Devin Hester, the most accomplished return man in NFL history, expects to return kicks for the Atlanta Falcons this season -- if healthy.

Hester, who underwent surgery on his right big toe in January, realizes his status with the team hinges on whether he makes a full recovery. Although he's been a participant in offseason workouts, the 33-year-old veteran hasn't been cleared to run just yet.

Hester is signed through the 2016 season and is scheduled to make $3 million -- a hefty price if he can't contribute.

"At the end of the day, I feel like it's going to come down to how my toe feels," Hester told ESPN.com. "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."

Hester, a former second-round draft pick of the Chicago Bears (2006), joined the Falcons in 2014 on a three-year, $9 million contract that included $4 million guaranteed. He made the Pro Bowl in 2014 after leading the NFL with 1,128 kickoff return yards while averaging 13.3 yards per punt return, which would have led the league had he had enough returns to qualify.

Then last year, Hester suffered what was initially labeled a turf toe injury in the third preseason game at Miami. The injury caused the Falcons to place Hester on injured reserve with a designation to return. He ended up playing in just five games, returning nine kickoffs for 235 yards (26.1 yards per return) and eight punts for 34 yards.

After the season, it was determined that Hester broke two sesamoid bones in his right big toe, which led to surgery. All along, he knew it would be a four-to-six month recovery process.

"They said it's going pretty good, and I'm doing some jogging now and ladders," Hester said. "I started that about a week ago. [Running] pretty much depends on what the toe says. I'm looking at it like the games don't start until September. I want to make sure that I'm good. I don't want to aggravate it; have it flare back up so where I have to deal with it again. I want to let it get right and be ready to go by the time the season starts."

Falcons coach Dan Quinn addressed Hester's status.

"He's doing the rehab and he's able to do certain things, but he's not been fully 'Hey, do it all,' so he's not there yet," Quinn said. "I don't know if I have a timeline for it. I would say we are, for sure, hopeful prior to camp [minicamp, June 14-16]. As far as the [organized team activities], I don't know. That toe has got to be right. And we're not going to put him out there until it is. He's got unique stuff to get up and go. When he's ready to do that, then that's when the docs with clear him."

Quinn was asked point blank if he is confident Hester, who was not utilized on offense last season, can be effective for the Falcons.

"Yeah," Quinn said. "We're hopeful. I just don't know the timeline yet."

Quinn said the team's decision to draft speedy wide receiver/kick returner Devin Fuller out of UCLA in the seventh round was not directly related to Hester's status.

"Let's not start comparing to Dev (Hester)," Quinn said. "[Fuller] is a receiver first, though. I mean he's going to return for us. But that's not the reason."

It does make perfect sense, however, to have backup plan in the return game, even if there's a chance kickoff returns could be deemphasized with the new rules changes.

Hester wasn't bothered by the addition of Fuller.

"To be honest, the only way I feel like I can get beat out in the return game is if I don't come back 100 percent," Hester said. "If he does [beat me out], he's going to be the best returner in this league."

Hester holds the NFL record with 20 return touchdowns, a record he set in September of 2014 against Tampa Bay and then-coach Lovie Smith, Hester's former coach with the Chicago Bears.

Hester said he wants to play at least two more season before considering retirement.