ATLANTA One of the overriding themes of the Falcons offseason has been to rid themselves of numerous higher-paid veterans, even the ones who are still productive.
The latest casualty was 31-year-old right tackle Tyson Clabo, who earned a Pro Bowl berth following the 2010 season and received a contract in 2011 for five years and 25 million, with 11.5 million guaranteed.
Cutting Clabo follows the March 1 purge in which the Falcons released big-salaried veterans Michael Turner, John Abraham (team-high 10 sacks last year) and cornerback Dunta Robinson, who started on playoff teams for the past three seasons.
Perhaps more than any other unit on the field, continuity and teamwork is of the utmost importance on the offensive line; and Clabo was a cornerstone of those concepts. He started every game over the last five seasons and 101 of the teams 112 regular-season games since 2006.
With the club's decisions to pass on re-signing long-time center Todd McClure, pushing McClure into retirement after 13 seasons, and release Clabo, the Falcons are essentially going with a youth movement on the O-line.
The left side of the line is set, as the Falcons re-signed tackle Sam Baker and guard Justin Blalock remains under contract. But the other three positions center, right guard and right tackle loom as something of a mystery. The Falcons have not had this much upheaval on the line since head coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff arrived in 2008.
One of the three vacancies will likely be filled by Peter Konz, the teams second-round draft pick last year. Konz, who played center in college at Wisconsin, started 10 rookie games at right guard and is sure to be stronger and improved in the coming season. The Falcons have the option of playing him at center or right guard.
The Falcons also have re-signed Garrett Reynolds, who has started 13 games at right guard over the last two seasons with mixed results. In Clabo's place, the Falcons could see a competition between Mike Johnson, a third-round pick in 2010 out of Alabama, and 2012 third-round pick Lamar Holmes.
Both players would be relatively green. Technically, Johnson has one start in his career, but that came in a short-yardage situation as a sixth lineman. Last season, he moved up the depth chart and played the jumbo tight end, which the Falcons reserve for their top lineman, who is not a starter.
Holmes was hurt for all of the offseason and most of training camp last year and so its hard to get a read on where he stands. He played in only two regular season games. At 6-foot-6, 333 pounds, he is a behemoth, more in the mode of Clabo.
A less likely prospect is that Joe Hawley, who started 12 games at right guard and center in 2011, could compete for a spot. Hawley was suspended four games last season for violating the leagues substance-abuse policy.
The Falcons could also go the free-agent route or look to the draft for linemen. But considering that both their top two picks in 2012 went on linemen (no first-round pick) and with their pressing needs on at cornerback and linebacker, its doubtful the Falcons will use high picks to do so.
The move to cut Clabo also marks something of a philosophical change. With Dirk Koetter entering his second year as offensive coordinator, the Falcons went from a team that pounded the ball with the run Clabos forte to one that passed first and used the screen game.
In addition, the change at offensive line coach from Paul Boudreau (2008-11) to Pat Hill last season ushered in a more technique-oriented shift from one of physical brute force and intimidation.
Clabo was more in the mold of the latter. His struggles to pass protect came to light in a 30-28 win over Carolina (Week 4), in which quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked seven times and Panthers end Charles Johnson victimized Clabo numerous times. In that sense, Johnson could be the favorite, as he is smaller and likely better on his feet. Potentially, he's also more suited to the demands of Koetters offense.
In the bigger picture, the Falcons gave themselves very little room to maneuver under the salary cap after signing Baker, safety William Moore, tight end Tony Gonzalez, running back Steven Jackson and, most recently, defensive end Osi Umenyiora.
Cutting Clabo might have simply been necessary for the Falcons to sign their draft picks. He is a good player and will continue be a good player for another team.
However, with his salary and with skill set, the Falcons apparently no longer felt they could keep him.
That is the business of the NFL.