The Falcons’ preparations for free agency are complicated by the issue of whether tight end Tony Gonzalez will return for his 17th season in the NFL.
Teams can start talking to player representatives Saturday, and free agency starts Tuesday.
After releasing veterans John Abraham, Michael Turner and Dunta Robinson, the Falcons stated that they cleared salary-cap room in order to re-sign their own players and leave open space for Gonzalez’s possible return.
They’ve since ramped up negotiations with safety William Moore and left tackle Sam Baker, while signing backup running back Antone Smith to a modest two-year, $1.425 million contract extension.
Smith received a $65,000 signing bonus and base salaries of $630,000 and $730,000. The Falcons would like to keep Moore and Baker from hitting the open market.
As of Thursday, the Falcons had $20.5 million under their adjusted cap of $124.3 million.
Gonzalez’s cap number last season was $5.9 million.
So if they give him a modest raise to come back and push his number up to $6.5 million, the Falcons would have $14 million left in salary-cap space.
Moore, who went to the Pro Bowl last season as an alternate, could demand a deal near the top of the safety market. The top safety salary belongs to San Diego’s Eric Weddle, whose deal last July averaged $8 million.
If the Falcons gave Moore a deal that averaged $8 million, they could lower his cap number by spreading out the signing bonus over the term of the contract.
Weddle received a $13 million signing bonus and had a cap number of $3.9 million last season.
If Moore’s cap number is $4 million, the Falcons would have $10 million left.
One of Baker’s comparables is New York Giants left tackle Will Beatty, who recently signed a five-year deal worth $37.5 million. His cap number for next season is $3.6 million.
So the Falcons would have roughly $6.4 million left in cap space for cornerback Brent Grimes, Ryan, the rookies and any veteran pickups.
That’s a tight spot, but manageable under the salary-cap rules.
Last season, Gonzalez had a stellar season. He caught 107 passes for 1,069 yards and 10 touchdowns passes over 18 games. He made one of the big catches that helped the Falcons get into field-goal range for their game-winning kick against Seattle in the NFC divisional playoff win.
“Tony Gonzalez has been so effective for us. To catch over 100 balls in a season as a 36-year-old is unbelievable,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said.
Gonzalez recently turned 37 and is aware of the team’s desire to know about his status for 2013 “sooner rather than later,” according to coach Mike Smith. If Gonzalez does retire, he wants to start a broadcasting career.
Gonzalez, Grimes and Ryan are all represented by Tom Condon and Ben Dogra of Creative Artists Agency, generally considered the top sports representation firm in football.
“Tom Condon, based on my experience with (negotiating) Peyton Manning’s contracts, is a notoriously tough bargainer, and I say that with respect,” said Bill Polian, former Indianapolis general manager.
Based on those Manning negotiations, Polian projects that Ryan’s deal likely won’t get done before the season starts. Ryan is set to play 2013 with a base salary of $10 million.
“The likelihood is that they won’t reach a deal in the summer months, in which case, you will have to play it out,” Polian said. “The (collective bargaining agreement) gives the player free agency, but it also gives the club the right to have the player complete his contract. The two rights are equivalent.”
Ryan’s negotiating position received a boost recently when Baltimore signed Joe Flacco to a six-year, $120.6 million contract.
Joel Corry, a former sports agent who covers sports business for nationalfootballpost.com, projected that Ryan’s deal could land between $126 million to $138 million in wake of the Flacco deal.
“Tom is as tough and realistic of a bargainer that there is,” Polian said.