Falcons have salary-cap room, options to re-tool roster

The Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionJanuary 18, 2014 

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The dust has started to settle in the aftermath of the Falcons' disastrous 4-12 season.

The team is ready to put behind them the injury-riddled campaign that saw them fall from Super Bowl contender to last place in the NFC South. They'll take steps today to shift their focus forward to the 2014 season.

The scouting for next season has been ongoing, but will start to intensify this week, as the Falcons' coaches left this morning to coach the North squad at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.

They'll have meetings with the players tonight and take the field Monday at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.

The evaluations of players from last season are nearly complete, and the Falcons are set to rate the group of potential unrestricted free agents. Free agency doesn't start until March 11.

In years past, this was the time of the year when the Falcons decided whether to put the franchise tag on Brent Grimes or were scouting offensive linemen. Last season, they worked on Matt Ryan's contract extension and decided which veterans to let go in order to make his deal as salary-cap friendly as possible.

This offseason, there will be several decisions to make regarding their own potential free agents, veterans who may be released to create more salary-cap room and who to pursue in free agency.

On the Falcons' list of potential unrestricted free agents are defensive linemen Jonathan Babineaux, Peria Jerry and Corey Peters, offensive linemen Joe Hawley, Mike Johnson, Sean Locklear and Jeremy Trueblood, tight end Chase Coffman, cornerback Dominique Franks and linebacker Omar Gaither.

Babineaux, 32, is perhaps the team's best defensive lineman, and he said he wants to return. He just completed a five-year, $25 million contract. A more modest two-year or three-year deal seems workable.

Hawley has been a valuable reserve. Peters (Achilles) and Johnson (ankle) suffered season-ending injuries, and that complicates their contract situations.

The Falcons have 55 players signed, but counting the top 51, per league rules, the Falcons are at $118.7 million against the cap, according to NFLPA documents. The cap for next season is projected to increase 2.6 percent, to $126.3 million.

When Tony Gonzalez's $7 million comes off the books, the Falcons will have $14.6 million of available cap space.

They would have the flexibility to be a major player in free agency should they elect to cut several veterans who could give them up to $18.2 million in additional salary-cap space, which could bring their available total to $32.8 million.

"There are a variety of ways that you can bring change to your roster," owner Arthur Blank said recently. "You can release players."

The Falcons could elect to part ways with cornerback Asante Samuel (saving $4.5 million), safety Thomas DeCoud ($4.2 million), running back Steven Jackson ($3 million), linebacker Stephen Nicholas ($3 million) and defensive end Osi Umenyiora ($3.5 million).

General manager Thomas Dimitroff calls them "salary-cap casualties," and it's a league-wide practice.

"I believe in the NFL today, so-called cap casualties are an issue for every team unless you're at the top of the heap with $30 million to $40 million dollars available," he said. "It's something that we will get into as we continue to analyze and re-evaluate this roster as it stands."

Umenyiora said he wants to return, but he was relegated to a designated pass-rusher late in the season. However, the Falcons seem to value his contributions.

"Osi has provided us with really nice leadership in the room," Dimitroff said. "He's been working and helping our young guys develop. We have three young (defensive) ends that have benefited from his tutoring."

Jackson, who turned 30 in July, rushed for a career-low 543 yards this season.

The Falcons also will renegotiate some contracts to create additional room. For instance, wide receiver Roddy White's salary-cap number of $6.3 million could be reduced with a two- or three-year extension.

While the Falcons still plan to build through the draft, they have to seriously consider free agency this offseason to improve their offensive and defensive lines. Rarely do draft picks come in and have an instant impact in the trenches.

"We'll see who's out there," Blank said. "We'll see the price tags on them, and we'll spend right up to maximum in terms of the salary cap."

Carolina is in a salary-cap bind and may have to let defensive end Greg Hardy become an unrestricted free agent while they work out a contract extension for quarterback Cam Newton. Hardy, who registered 26 sacks over the past two seasons, will be highly coveted.

Kansas City offensive tackle Branden Albert and Cleveland center Alex Mack would be the top two offensive linemen if they reach the open market. Albert was paid nearly $10 million by the Chiefs last season after receiving the franchise tag.

Arizona coach Bruce Arians said it was a priority to keep linebacker Karlos Dansby, who played for Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan in Miami.

The Falcons could elect to use the Seattle approach and add multiple players at cheaper prices. The Seahawks added defensive ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett last offseason. Avril signed a two-year, $13 million contract, and Bennett signed a one-year, $5 million deal.

Other potential free-agent pass rushers include Cincinnati's Michael Johnson (a former Georgia Tech standout), Washington's Brian Orakpo and the New York Giants' Justin Tuck.

The Falcons, who landed Jackson and Umenyiora in free agency last season, have become a "destination" team.

"We often get phone calls early in the process from players who want to play here," Blank said. "We've set the right environment."

However, the Falcons have been burned in free agency. In dire need for secondary help in 2010, the Falcons signed cornerback Dunta Robinson to a six-year, $54 million contract with $22.5 million guaranteed. He was released after the 2012 season.

Also, the Falcons were burned when they signed defensive end Ray Edwards to a five-year, $27.5 million deal in 2011. He was cut during the next season after he was demoted, tallying only 3.5 sacks in 25 games. He was dead weight on the books last season at $4.65 million. He comes off in 2014.

"We'll come up with some good candidates and, hopefully, the right (ones) that will be with us for a long period of time," Blank said.

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