FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — With an eye toward creating some salary cap space and getting younger, the Atlanta Falcons released three key veterans — running back Michael Turner, defensive end John Abraham and cornerback Dunta Robinson — on Friday, the team confirmed to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Turner’s release saves the team $6.4 million under the salary cap. Abraham saves the $5.75 million and Robinson saves $3.75 million. In all, the team got $15.9 million under the salary cap by releasing the three veterans.
“In 2008, we came in here and we were the youngest team in the NFL,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “This last year, we were one of the oldest teams.”
Turner’s base salary for 2013 was set to increase from $5.5 million to $6.9 million because of an escalator clause from 2008 and 2010-11 performance incentives. His salary cap number for 2013 was slated to be $8.9 million, but he had a prorated signing bonus of $2.5 million to absorb, so the team’s net salary cap gain would be $6.4 million.
At the NFL scouting combine, Falcons coach Mike Smith did not deny that the moves were forthcoming.
“Guys, this time of the year, there are tough decisions that have to be made,” Smith said. “We are recalibrating our roster as we speak, going through that process… . We’ll continue to go through that process in terms of how we are going to recalibrate it.”
Smith and Dimitroff spent time with owner Arthur Blank after returning from the NFL scouting combine before making these moves.
There is a cause-and-effect to every decision that you make at this time of the year,” Smith said. “You’re dealing with the salary cap and those decisions will work themselves out.” In five seasons with the Falcons, Turner rushed for 6,081 yards and 60 touchdowns.
He was named All-Pro and made the Pro Bowl team after rushing for 1,699 and 17 touchdowns in 2008.
Turner’s 2009 season was marred by a high-ankle sprain. He rushed for 871 yards in 11 games.
He also made the Pro Bowl team after rushing for 1,371 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2010.
In 2011, he rushed for 1,340 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Last season, he split time with running back Jacquizz Rodgers. Turner averaged just 3.6 yards per carry last season as he finished with 800 yards on 222 carries.
The Falcons acquired Abraham through a trade with the New York Jets in 2006.
Abraham could have left during free agency last season, but he signed a three-year, $16.72 million contract to return to the Falcons in March 2012. The Titans and Broncos expressed interest and there was a least one undisclosed NFL team with a more lucrative offer on the table.
Abraham, one of the top defensive ends in the NFL over the past 13 seasons, was selected 13th overall in the first round of the 2000 draft by the New York Jets. One of the game’s premier speed rushers, Abraham has 122 career sacks.
Abraham had 68.5 sacks over his seven seasons with the Falcons. He had a career-high of 16.5 sacks in 2008.
Abraham’s cap number was $7.25 million and minus his prorated signing bonus of $1.5 million he’ll save the Falcons $5.75 million.
The Falcons, with the hopes of improving their pass defense, signed Robinson to a six-year, $57 million contract on March 5, 2010.
His salary cap number was $9 million and minus $5.75 million in prorated bonuses, he saves the team $3.75 million.
Rodgers, who had a strong second season, took over more of the role at running back last season.
“He can handle all three downs and he does a very good job for us returning kicks,” Smith said. “We were very transparent back in March of last year in terms of how we were going to put together our offense. That we were not going to have a featured back. That we were going to have carries dispersed amongst a number of guys and I think Jacquizz took advantage of his opportunities.”
Also, the Falcons are watching the situation closely in St. Louis with running back Steven Jackson, who’s expected to void his contract and become an unrestricted free agent, according to a report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Jackson appears to be a better fit for the Falcons offense under coordinator Dirk Koetter. Jackson is an accomplished pass catcher out of the backfield.
Jackson would be opting out of a deal that would have paid him $7 million next season.
Jackson, who turns 30 in July, would be a short-term fix and would not preclude the Falcons from selecting another running back in the draft. Jackson has rushed for more than 10,000 yards in nine seasons with the Rams.
Jackson has 407 career receptions and had 90 back in 2006.
These are the first moves as the Falcons get creative to possibly sign Jackson, tight end Tony Gonzalez, safety William Moore and left tackle Sam Baker. Also, quarterback Matt Ryan’s contract looms on the financial horizon.
After the Ray Edwards debacle — $27.5 million contract, $11 million guaranteed, virtually no return — the Falcons will be extremely selective in free agency. They have internally discussed adding defensive linemen Dwight Freeney and Osi Umenyiora. Teams can’t start negotiating until March 9. Free agency officially starts on March 12.
The Falcons continue to hope that Gonzalez returns.
“Tony (Gonzalez) is an anomaly,” Dimitroff said. “Again, you see him walk out on the field as a 36-year-old and he looks like he’s 25. He’s in great shape. He takes care of himself. He moves around the way that he always has moved around. You see everyone lose a step or a quarter of a step, but Tony Gonzalez can still produce at a high level.”
They Falcons have been steadfast in their desire to have Gonzalez, who turned 37 on Feb. 27, return.
This is the second major roster purge under the Dimitroff regime.
After the surprising 2008 season in which the Falcons went 11-5 and earned a wildcard playoff berth, they allowed five defensive starters — defensive tackle Grady Jackson, cornerback Dominique Foxworth, linebacker Keith Brooking, safety Lawyer Milloy and linebacker Michael Boley — to leave.
By releasing the veterans, the Falcons are confident that they can land help at running back, defensive end and cornerback through free agency, the draft or they believe the replacement is already on the roster.