The NFL offseason opened with a bang for the Falcons on Monday.
The team parted ways with cornerback Desmond Trufant (saving $4.95 million against the salary cap), running back Devonta Freeman ($3.5 million), reserve tackle Ty Sambrailo ($3.7 million) and reserve tight end Luke Stocker ($2.6 million). The Falcons created $14.76 million in salary cap space, but will use $6.4 million for the 2020 rookie class.
The team also acquired tight end Hayden Hurst in a trade with the Ravens. The Falcons received the Ravens' fourth-round pick (143rd overall) in the 2020 NFL draft, but gave up their second-round (55th overall) and a fifth-round pick (157th overall) in this year's draft to get Hurst.
With Austin Hooper set to leave and join the Browns in free agency and the release of Stocker, the Falcons were thin at the position. Before the trade, Jaeden Graham and Carson Meier were the only two tight ends on the roster.
"The @AtlantaFalcons lost the highest paid tight end in the league today, but they actually upgraded at the position by trading for Hayden Hurst," wrote Jim Nagy, the executive director of the Senior Bowl, on Twitter. "If Hurst were in this year's draft he'd be the first TE selected. The system was holding Hurst back in Baltimore."
The release of Trufant was the most stunning cap casualty. After not finding a trade partner, Trufant, who’s been the team’s No. 1 cornerback since being drafted in the first round (22nd overall) in 2013, the team elected to move on.
Trufant, 29, who went to the Pro Bowl after the 2015 season, has made 97 starts for the Falcons.
Trufant, who played just nine games last season after breaking his forearm, had the fourth largest salary cap number ($15.1 million) on the team behind quarterback Matt Ryan ($24.1 million), wide receiver Julio Jones ($20.4 million) and left tackle Jake Matthews ($16 million).
When Trufant was injured last season, Blidi Wreh-Wilson started at left cornerback. He’s set to become an unrestricted free agent.
The Falcons were impressed with rookie cornerback Kendall Sheffield, who played in the slot and some at left cornerback. Second-year cornerback Isaiah Oliver had a bumpy year as a first-time starter at right cornerback.
Defensive coordinator Raheem Morris sang the praises of Trufant last week.
“He came on last year and probably had one of his more productive seasons,” Morris said. “Grabbing four picks ... he had two in one game and two in another. He played well. We look forward to all of those guys coming back.”
However, with the Falcons strapped for salary cap space, Trufant apparently became expendable. Freeman, a two-time Pro Bowler, was an expected cut.
Freeman, who averaged a career-low 3.6 yards per carry last season, had three years remaining on his contract and was set to receive base salaries of $6.5 million in 2020, $6.3 million in 2021 and $8.2 million in 2022.
Freeman, 28, was asked about his future with the Falcons at the end of the season. He seemed to know the writing was on the wall.
“Whatever happens, happens,” Freeman said.
Freeman, who missed three games with a foot sprain last season, said he was otherwise physically fine last season when he rushed 184 times for 656 yards and two touchdowns. He caught 59 passes for 410 yards and a career-high four receiving touchdowns.
Freeman seemed to be a better fit in former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s outside zone scheme. The Falcons didn’t run as much outside zone last season under offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.
Freeman had two spectacular seasons in 2015 and 2016, but after signing a new contact in 2017, his production tailed off.
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