When it comes right down to it, sport is a business. Tough decisions often have to be made to keep the business viable. So it is with the Atlanta Falcons, who released three big names to make some room under the salary cap despite a 13-3 regular-season record in 2012, their fifth consecutive winning season.
Running back Michael Turner, defensive end John Abraham and cornerback Dunta Robinson have been given their walking papers, clearing about $16 million in cap space. Turner has been their featured back, but his 2012 stats (800 yards on 222 carries and 10 touchdowns) came in far below his previous numbers. His role as the go-to back will be taken by Jacquizz Rodgers, who is quicker and younger.
Abraham led the team in sacks with 10.0 — and had compiled 68.5 sacks since 2006 — yet was deemed expendable despite Atlanta’s need for pass-rushing. Robinson was also a starting cornerback signed as a free agent in 2010 to a six-year, $57-million deal, but did not play up to expectations despite being rated by Pro Football Focus as one of the best run defenders in the league.
While Abraham is 34, Turner is 31, and Robinson 30, age was still cited as a factor in the releases by general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who brought Turner and Robinson to the Falcons after he was hired five years ago. “In 2008, we came in here and we were the youngest team in the NFL,” Dimitroff said in an interview. “This last year, we were one of the oldest teams.”
So age appears to be less of a consideration than play-for-pay. The decisions have been made, and now the work starts to fill those holes with the $23 million they now have available to them. Atlanta has several needs, with depth and defensive end and cornerback among their top priorities. Where they expect to get that depth for less money than they were paying Abraham and Robinson is unclear: the draft is risky, and free agency could prove to be equally thorny for any kind of return-on-investment equation.
Then there is the conundrum of running back. Rodgers is a fine slashing runner, but has never carried the ball more than 11 times in any of his pro starts. Steven Jackson was just released by the St. Louis Rams the other day, and he could be an option. Tight end is an issue, too. If Tony Gonzalez decides to retire, there will be another position to deal with: if he doesn’t, he could cost a significant amount to retain his services. They could also use a third wide receiver and help at strong safety and left tackle.