The Falcons may have been just 10 yards short from reaching Super Bowl XLVII, but don’t expect them to stand pat in 2013.
Like old crooner Sam Cooke use to sing, “A change is gonna come.” Contending teams that remain stagnant in the NFL risk falling back into the pack of mediocrity.
The Falcons have some key decisions to make on mainstays like center Todd McClure, defensive end John Abraham, running back Michael Turner, cornerback Brent Grimes, linebacker Stephen Nicholas, left tackle Sam Baker and safety William Moore.
The team is also waiting to hear from tight end Tony Gonzalez, who is set to retire. Coach Mike Smith stated that they’d like him to return and has expressed the team’s position to Gonzalez and his representatives.
“We know there are going to be decisions that need to be made,” Smith said.
Under general manager Thomas Dimitroff’s administration, the Falcons have built the team through the draft. Since 2008, the Falcons have drafted 38 players. Of that group, 13 were starters last season, 17 were backups, three are with other teams and five are out of the league.
The Falcons have also started to favor younger (less expensive) players over veterans. Last season they released veteran long snapper Joe Zelenka and went with rookie Josh Harris, saving more than $500,000.
Some of the players who will not return may not know it until late April after they’ve been supplanted by draft picks. Last season, the Falcons drafted fullback Bradie Ewing and then released former Pro Bowl fullback Ovie Mughelli, saving more than $3 million in salary cap space.
The Falcons will have some extremely tough decisions. Michael Turner, who’s scheduled to receive $6.9 million in base salary next season, could be a candidate to have his contract renegotiated or even be replaced by a running back from the draft.
By shrewdly managing their salary cap, the Falcons were able to afford cornerback Asante Samuel’s salary last season after renegotiating cornerback Dunta Robinson’s contract.
This year, through an item negotiated in the last labor agreement, the Falcons can carry over into 2013 the $307,540 of cap room they had left over in 2012. They also have a $1 million additional adjustment.
The salary cap for 2013 has not yet been announced, but is expected to be about the same as last season at $120.6 million. The Falcons have $120.2 million dedicated to the team’s highest-paid 51 players — the number the NFL counts in the offseason — in existing contracts.
Those numbers don’t include Gonzalez, who would made $5.75 million last season and might need a bigger financial incentive to alter his retirement plans.
With the $1.3 million in carryover, the Falcons have about $1.7 million of cap space before the start of the new NFL year. That’s barely enough room to offer restricted free agent tenders to running back Antone Smith, cornerback Robert McClain and tight end Michael Palmer.
After their gut-wrenching 28-24 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC championship game, Dimitroff and Smith, who work closely together in the offseason, have the task of improving their roster in a cap-stressed situation.
The Falcons also have to consider addressing the contracts of future free agents like quarterback Matt Ryan (eligible in 2014), defensive tackle Corey Peters (2014), wide receiver Roddy White (2015) and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (2015).
If the Falcons want to bring back Gonzalez and re-sign Baker and Moore, they will have to renegotiate several contracts and make other financial cuts to gain additional cap room.
Releasing Turner and Abraham could net the Falcons $10.4 million of cap space. Other players like Nicholas, Robinson and right tackle Tyson Clabo could be renegotiation prospects.
The Falcons re-signed Abraham last season to a modest three-year, $16.72 million contract. Because Abraham has two years left on his contract with his $1.5 million of prorated signing bonus, the team’s net cap space gain is about $6 million. He’s set to make $4.25 million in base salary in 2013 and $3.25 in 2014.
Turner’s base salary for 2013 increases from $5.5 million to $6.9 million because of an escalator clause from 2008 and 2010-11 performance incentives. He also has a prorated signing bonus of $2.5 million to absorb so the team’s net salary cap gain would be $4.4 million.
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