Falcons coach Mike Smith on Tony Gonzalez

Falcons welcome the return of Gonzalez

Longtime center Todd McClure is set to retire

Just hours before the start of free agency, Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez informed the team that he is returning for his 17th season in the NFL, the team confirmed on Tuesday.

The Falcons’ preparations for free agency were complicated by the issue of whether the league’s greatest tight end was set to retire.

Gonzalez’s cap number last season was $5.9 million. He will be in line for a modest raise that should land him a contract between $6.5 million and $7 million.

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 was aware of the team’s desire to know about his status for 2013 “sooner rather than later,” according to coach Mike Smith. Once Gonzalez does retire, he plans to start a career in broadcasting.

Gonzalez, cornerback Brent Grimes and quarterback Matt Ryan are all represented by Tom Condon and Ben Dogra of Creative Artists Agency, generally considered one of the top sports representation firms 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.

Fox Sports first reported Gonzalez' return. In the Fox report, Gonzalez said, “"After discussing it with my family and really, truly struggling with this decision, I informed the Falcons that I would like to return for one more shot,"

The Falcons reached the NFC championship game and were defeated 28-24 by the San Francisco 49ers, one step away from the Super Bowl.

Before last season, Gonzalez had never won a playoff game. It was just too tough for him to walk away, one step away from reaching the Super Bowl.

"Considering how this season ended, I wanted to give it another run with Matt (Ryan), Smitty (head coach Mike Smith) and the guys we have in there. It was the first time I had won a playoff game and hopefully coming back once more we can take it one step further," Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez is the game’s second all-time leading receiver behind Jerry Rice. He has 1,242 catches. He maintained all season that he was 95 percent sure that he was set on retiring.

"I was done, I thought I had my mind made up,"  Gonzalez said. "This whole year I knew it would be my last but the way our final game ended and talking to all the guys in the locker room, in the end it was too difficult of a way for me to step away from the game. It's not often in a career you're around a group like we have down in Atlanta."

The Falcons never gave Gonzalez,  a 13-time Pro Bowler, a timetable to announce his return. But the timing ending up working out for the team with free agency set to start today at 4 p.m.

Gonzalez also acknowledged the support of the Falcons fans.

"I have to say also I was pretty overwhelmed by the fans and how much they reached out to me,” Gonzalez said. “It was really something. They sent me all these videos, posts on twitter, Facebook, things like that -- a bunch of different messages hoping I would return. Really makes you put things in perspective.

"I am coming back for one reason and one reason only, the chance to win a Super Bowl."

     The Falcons have been heavily scouted the tight ends that are  eligible in the upcoming draft, April 25-27.

   Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert is considered the top player at the position followed by Stanford’s Zach Ertz.

     “It's a good tight end group,” Dimitroff said. “The numbers are good, the athleticism is good, the ability to catch the ball is good, and the ability to block is there. I think we all know the importance of the tight end position -- it's not just about catching the ball, but it's also about being able to block the right way. Not always as effective as some of those big tight ends, but if you have the total package, and I think there are a number of guys in this group with the total package -- blocking and receiving.”

      With the return of Gonzalez, the Falcons likely can now focus on drafting to help their defense. However, they still may take a tight end in the draft as Gonzalez has indicated that 2013 will indeed be his final season.

     “What he's done on and off the field for us -- it has

changed our opinion of what a tight end is, or what our goals are in acquiring a tight end,” Dimitrof said. “That doesn't come around every day, and we know that. We talk about it all the time, in our draft rooms. If you can find a tight end who can block, as well as run

around, separate, catch the ball, and turn up the field, and there are a number of them in the league right now.”

   Once the season was over, the Falcons let Gonzalez know that if he wanted to return, he was more than welcome. Working out the details on a one-year contract should be relatively painless.

      “Tony's an anomaly,” Dimitroff said. “You see him walk out on to the field as a 36-year-old, and he looks like he's 25. He's in great shape, he takes care of himself,

and he moves around the way I think he's always moved around. Everyone loses a step or a quarter of a step, but Tony can still produce at a very high level, and those guys don't come around every day.”

Also, center Todd McClure is apparently on they verge of announcing his retirement. His agent Rick Smith would not comment.

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