Originally posted on Fox Sports South  |  Last updated 3/13/12
When NFL free agency begins on Tuesday, the Atlanta Falcons will be relatively long on players hitting the market and short on cap space to keep them. At the conclusion of the season, the Falcons had 18 players eligible for free agency and thus far they have maneuvered to keep four of them defensive end Kroy Biermann, safety Thomas DeCoud, running back Jason Snelling and cornerback Brent Grimes, who, unlike the other three, has not re-signed but has been hit with the teams franchise tag, allowing the Falcons to retain his rights. According to an NFL Network report on Tuesday, the Falcons only have 7 million under the leagues 120-million salary cap. That means numerous key players are about to hit the open market, among them middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, defensive end John Abraham, center Todd McClure and wide receiver Harry Douglas. In some cases, the Falcons have already made contingencies for what would appear to be the expected loss of some of those players. On Saturday, the Falcons came to terms with former three-time Pro-Bowl linebacker Lofa Tatupu, 29, an All-Pro in 2007, who did not play last season because of a knee injury. The Falcons might seem content to allow Tatupu and Akeem Dent, a third-round pick in 2011 out of Georgia, to battle it out in Loftons place. FOXs Alex Marvez has reported on Twitter that the Falcons NFC South Division rival Tampa Bay is expected to make a strong push for Lofton. The Bucs Mason Foster, their starting rookie middle linebacker last season, is said to be more suited to playing outside and the Bucs have the most cap room of any team in the league at more than 44 million. While he differs from Lofton in that he is an outside linebacker with strong pass-rushing skills, San Francisco linebacker Ahmad Brooks recently signed a six-year, 44.5-million contract with 17.5 million guaranteed one that Lofton could point to in his own negotiations. Brooks, 28, is two years Loftons elder. In addition, late last Friday the Falcons signed former Jacksonville guard Vince Manuwai, who, like Tatupu, did not play last season because of, in his case, an ankle injury. Manuwai previously had played under new Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter when Koetter was the Jaguars offensive coordinator. If Manuwai takes over at the right guard spot, that could pave the way for Joe Hawley to take over for McClure, the long-time starter at center whose career as a Falcon could be finished. McClure, 35, started 166 of 168 games for the Falcons through the end of last season, including 144 in row. Hawley, a fourth-round pick in 2010 who started 12 games last season, is a natural center but was moved to right guard, as the Falcons had issues filling that position to their liking after the departure of Harvey Dahl via free agency last summer. Two players for whom the Falcons have yet to make contingencies should they depart are Abraham and Douglas. Abraham, the NFLs active sacks leader, who will be 34 next season, said on an Atlanta radio station in recent weeks that he would like to be paid in the 12-million range a number that would not appear to be within the Falcons means nor desire. Abraham has struggled throughout his career with groin injuries, a situation that affected him in 2011, and his 9.5 sacks total of a last season looks a lot less impressive considering that 3.5 of sacks came against a hapless Jacksonville team in Week 15 in a 41-14 win. These are situations that I have to keep in perspective that every player is going to want as much money as they can get, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said of Abraham in an interview on the teams flagship radio station 11 days ago, a statement that could be applied to Lofton, as well. Thats human nature. Obviously, you cant accommodate everyone. Douglas (498 yards on 39 catches in 11), to an extent, could be a victim of circumstance. The Falcons would no doubt like to have him back, but with big dollars not to mention the large majority of the passes targeted over the coming seasons that will be aimed at Roddy White and Julio Jones, Atlanta is not in a position to pay the dollars that some teams might pay Douglas, who will be 28. Jacksonville, with new head coach Mike Mularkey, the Falcons former offensive coordinator, could be the kind of team that takes a run at Douglas. Jacksonville is 34.5 million under the cap and has a new owner who no doubt is looking to improve the team. Other Falcons who will become free agents are safety James Sanders, cornerback Kelvin Hayden, veteran linebacker Mike Peterson, defensive tackle Vance Walker, offensive guard Kirk Chambers, tight end Reggie Kelly, back-up quarterback Chris Redman, long snapper Joe Zelenka, wide receiver Eric Weems, a Pro-Bowler in 2010 as a kickoff returner, and center Brett Romberg. Of that group, the most urgent could be Walker, a useful player in the teams rotation, Redman, Zelenka and Weems. Hayden, who played nickelback, a constant trouble spot for the Falcons, struggled with injuries last season, as he has in recent seasons. In terms of Sanders, the Falcons already have two starters at the position with William Moore and the re-signed DeCoud. Peterson is a leader and one of the most popular players on the team and among the coaching staff, but he will be 36 and is coming off an injury and could be too expensive at the veteran minimum for a back-up and special teams player.
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