With a limited amount of cap space, the Atlanta Falcons are going to be forced to make several decisions in keeping their own.
Leading the list of free agents for the Falcons are tackle Sam Baker, tight end Tony Gonzalez, cornerback Brent Grimes, and safety William Moore.
Despite an abysmal, injury-riddled season for Baker in 2011, the Falcons chose to remain faithful to the tackle they drafted to protect Matt Ryan’s blindside. Baker proved the Falcons made the right decision after he turned in a solid 2012 season. The Falcons are likely to bring Baker back at a reasonable price. While there could be upgrades available in free agency (Ryan Clady, Jake Long), the Falcons don’t have the cap room to sign either of those two tackles, especially since both are going to command hefty contracts.
Gonzalez has his eyes set on retirement, but the team is pleading with him to return for one more year. The Hall of Fame tight end had his best season since Atlanta traded for him in 2009, catching 93 passes for 930 yards and eight touchdowns. He also finally won his first playoff game, and came 10 yards short from a Super Bowl appearance. Gonzalez said he was 95 percent sure he’d retire at season’s end, but that five percent chance is still alive.
Grimes is an interesting case. He’s undoubtedly the Falcons’ best cornerback, but he’s coming off an Achilles injury he suffered in Week 1 that ended his season. At the start of next season, he will be 30 years old. Coming off the aforementioned injury, Grimes could be signed to a “prove it” deal before getting the sought-after long-term deal. In any case, he’s likely to command more on the open market than the Falcons are willing to offer.
Moore was selected to the Pro Bowl. He and Thomas DeCoud, who was selected to the Pro Bowl as well, form one of the best safety tandems in the league. I’m confident the Falcons will re-sign Moore to a long-term deal. If not, safety will draw plenty of interest from other teams.
Also slated to become unrestricted free agents are fullback Mike Cox, center Todd McClure, quarterback Luke McCown, cornerback Chris Owens, linebacker Mike Peterson, guard Garrett Reynolds, defensive end Lawrence Sidbury, tackle Will Svitek, and defensive tackle Vance Walker.
Cox likely won’t return; the Falcons were prepared to move forward with rookie Bradie Ewing last season before an ACL injury in the preseason ended his year.
McClure may be brought back for another year for the vet minimum like he was last year. If Atlanta moves Peter Konz from right guard to center, McClure will be the backup.
McCown probably comes back for the vet minimum as well. He’s at least familiar with offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter from their days with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Ryan’s a durable quarterback, and premiums are hardly placed on backup quarterbacks.
I doubt Peterson, Sidbury, and Svitek return. If the Falcons do re-sign Peterson, it would be later in the offseason if an injury occurred to any of the other linebackers. Sidbury hasn’t lived up to his potential and was inactive for several games last season. Lamar Holmes was drafted last year and will back up Baker, which means Svitek is likely gone.
Owens has improved since his disastrous 2010 campaign, and Reynolds was stout before he his season was ended with a back injury. Walker has been a good rotational player since Atlanta drafted him. The Falcons will make at least an effort to keep these three, but don’t expect the team to push hard to retain them.
Tight end Michael Palmer and running back Antone Smith are restricted free agents. Palmer served as the backup tight end and acted mostly as a blocker. Smith is a special teamer who saw virtually no action on offense.