The Falcons came up 10 yards short in the postseason. But in the offseason, general manager Thomas Dimitroff is clicking on all cylinders.
The Falcons had some potentially massive holes at several key positions, but they have come up with plausible answers and possible upgrades at nearly every spot.
The key move was to get tight end Tony Gonzalez, a future Hall of Famer, to put off his retirement for at least another season. With Gonzalez back on board, the team was more attractive to key veteran free agents.
The Falcons released key contributors in running back Michael Turner, defensive end John Abraham and cornerback Dunta Robinson to clear room under the salary cap. They left enough room to keep some of their players and sign two free agents — former Pro Bowlers Steven Jackson and Osi Umenyiora, who signed with the team Thursday.
The only noticeable hole remaining is at cornerback. In addition to releasing Robinson, Brent Grimes, who made $10 million last season, agreed to terms on a one-year contract with the Miami Dolphins on Saturday.
The Falcons’ moves in free agency played a role in landing Umenyiora.
“They signed some very good players,” Umenyiora said. “They are going to be able to contend for a long time here.”
Umenyiora, who went to two Pro Bowls and earned two Super Bowl rings with the New York Giants, could have visited other teams.
“You just don’t get this opportunity that often, to leave a good situation and come to a great situation,” Umenyiora said. “This is where I live. This is where my family lives. This is where my son lives. This is home for me, and this is where I plan on living for the rest of my life. It was almost a no-brainer. This is a team that I feel could use a player like myself.”
Although there were no reports of Umenyiora being linked to other teams, he had some options.
“I’m not going to go into detail as to what teams or where I could have gone,” Umenyiora said. “But there were some situations where teams were very, very interested.”
Once he met with Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith, Umenyiora knew they could reach a deal.
“I didn’t want to take any other trips,” he said. “Some people were interested, but my mind was set on coming here and being at home.”
From the outset of free agency, Dimitroff made it clear that the team cleared salary-cap space to retain its own key free agents. The Falcons committed $91.08 million to retain Gonzalez, safety William Moore, offensive tackle Sam Baker, running back Antone Smith and guard Garrett Reynolds.
The Falcons also committed another $24 million to Jackson and Umenyiora.
Robinson was signed by Kansas City, and some of their reserves have moved on, including defensive end Lawrence Sidbury (Indianapolis), defensive tackle Vance Walker (Oakland), offensive tackle Will Svitek (New England) and cornerback Christopher Owens (Cleveland).
Turner and Abraham are in the group of former Falcons who still are available.
The Falcons were $6.281 million under the salary cap before signing Umenyiora. His cap number for 2013 likely is in the $3 million to $4 million range, depending on bonuses. Those numbers would leave the team with just over $2 million or $3 million.
They clearly don’t have room to re-sign Abraham and all 11 rookie draft picks. However, they could pick up some much needed salary-cap room when they do a contract extension for quarterback Matt Ryan.
A new contract could drastically reduce Ryan’s $12 million salary-cap number for next season.
“There’s a lot of money for those certain guys that you have to deal with, and you have to be creative and make sure you can fit the guys on your roster who may be younger in the game,” Dimitroff said.
“It’s about developing talent — that’s huge in the game today. The way it is right now with the cap, it’s very important to make sure that your coaching staff is very in line with your personnel staff and your general manager to make sure we’re about the development of our young guys.”
Tight end Michael Palmer, fullback Mike Cox, quarterback Luke McCown, safety Chris Hope and linebacker Mike Peterson remain free agents after their contracts expired. Also, center Todd McClure announced his retirement after 14 seasons with the team.
The Falcons can now focus solely on the draft, which will be held April 25-27. The Falcons have 11 picks and pick 30th in the first round.
It must be noted that Dimitroff has made a trade in all five of his drafts and has enough ammunition to move up and pick one of the talented cornerbacks — Houston’s D.J. Hayden, Washington’s Desmond Trufant or Florida State’s Xavier Rhodes. Alabama’s Dee Milliner, the top cornerback in the draft, likely will go in the top 10, and the cost of moving up to draft him likely would be too high.