The free agency picture became a little clearer with the passing of the franchise and transition tag deadline on Monday.
The biggest news of the day was that Buffalo safety Jairus Byrd, a three-time Pro Bowl defensive back, was not tagged and appears to have a clear path to the open market.
The Falcons now have 53 players signed, but counting the top 51, per league rules, the Falcons are at $113.3 million against the cap, according to National Football League Players Association documents. The cap for next season will increase to $133 million.
Once the $7 million slot that Tony Gonzalez is holding is removed, the Falcons will have $26.7 million under the 2014 salary cap.
The Falcons can also renegotiate some contracts to create additional room. For instance, wide receiver Roddy White’s salary-cap number of $6.3 million and left guard Justin Blalock’s salary-cap number of $7.6 million could be reduced with a two- or three-year extension.
The Falcons, who have elected not to use the franchise or transition tag this offseason, have entered into contract talks with defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, defensive tackle Corey Peters and center/guard Joe Hawley.
The Falcons’ list of potential unrestricted free agents include Babineaux, Hawley, Peters, defensive tackle Peria Jerry, offensive Mike Johnson, Sean Locklear and Jeremy Trueblood, tight end Chase Coffman, cornerback Dominique Franks and linebacker Omar Gaither.
The Falcons,who have cut Asante Samuel, Stephen Nicholas and Garrett Reynolds, could elect to part ways with more veterans. Free safety Thomas DeCoud ($4.2 million) is the most likely candidate if they are able to sign Byrd in free agency.
With the tags being used around the league, we need to adjust the five possible free agent targets from the previous article, with Byrd moving up to the top spot.
The Bills have until March 11 to re-sign Byrd. The Falcons and other teams can start negotiating with Byrd’s agent, Eugene Parker on Saturday. They couldn’t sign him until Monday.
Parker represents Falcons running back Steven Jackson, who signed with the team during free agency last season.
Here are five possible free agent targets for the Falcons:
1. Jairus Byrd, safety, Buffalo. He has played five seasons with the Bills, since being selected in the second-round (42nd overall) of the 2009 NFL Draft. He’s a three-time Pro Bowler and has 22 career interceptions. In the Falcons’ 34-31 victory over the Bills on Dec. 1 in Toronto, Byrd had nine tackles. He played last season under the franchise tag and was the eighth ranked safety in the league, according to profootballfocus.com. DeCoud was the 83rd ranked safety last season. Defensive end Greg Hardy previously held the top spot but Carolina slapped the franchise tag on him.
2. Michael Johnson, defensive end, Cincinnati: The former Georgia Tech standout has the high FBI (Football Intelligence) that the Falcons like. He had 11.5 sacks in 2012, but his numbers dipped to 3.5 sacks last season. He also had 10 pass deflections in 2013. Center Alex Mack of Cleveland previously held the No. 2 spot, but he received the transition tag from the Browns.
3. Michael Bennett, defensive end, Seattle: After signing a one-year, $5 million deal, Bennett, 28, is hoping to strike a lucrative deal. He led the Super Bowl champs with 8.5 sacks and was one of the top rated defensive end in the league last season. Bennett played 617 snaps and had 17 quarterback this and 39 quarterback pressures last season, according to analytics site, profootballfocus.com. Defensive end Osi Umenyiora led the Falcons with seven sacks, four quarterback hits and 29 pressures last season.
4. Branden Albert, T, Kansas City: He’d have to be fine with playing right tackle because the Falcons believe that Sam Baker is their left tackle. He played 12 games at left tackle last season and was the 28th ranked tackle in the league, according to profootballfocus.com. He had nine penalties, gave up four sacks, five quarterback hits and eight hurries. Trueblood started 12 games at right tackle and was the 53rd rated tackle in the league. Lamar Holmes started 13 games at left tackle and three at right tackle. He was the 75th rated tackle in the league.
5. Randy Starks, DT, Miami: Starks, 30, is a two-time Pro Bowler, who could anchor the defensive line at 6-foot-3, 305 pounds. He was the seventh ranked defensive tackle in the league last season by profootballfocus.com. He had four sacks, six quarterback hits and 30 quarterback hurries. He’s also stout against the run.
Others prospective unrestricted free agents to watch: Malcolm Jenkins, FS, Saints; Paul Soliai, DT, Miami (played for defensive coordinator Mike Nolan in Miami); Geoff Schwartz, OG, Kansas City; Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jacksonville (played for offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter in Jacksonville); Karlos Dansby, LB, Arizona (played for Nolan in Miami).