By cutting two former starting defensive players — four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Asante Samuel and linebacker Stephen Nicholas — the Atlanta Falcons began the offseason re-tooling of their roster.
Neither move came as a surprise. Samuel was benched in the final four games of the season in favor of rookie Robert Alford, a second-round pick. Nicholas, who started 51 games in seven seasons for the Falcons, lost his starting job at the outset of the campaign (though with the defense beset by injuries, Nicholas ended up starting three games). Nonetheless, two undrafted rookies, Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu, supplanted him in the lineup.
Samuel would have earned a base salary of $3.2 million next season and Nicholas would have earned a base of $3 million in 2014 and $4.5 million in 2015.
The Falcons needed to begin clearing cap space to improve one of the NFL’s worst defenses. Only two teams had fewer than the Falcons’ 32 sacks. While Atlanta finished 31st against the run, Nicholas was one of their better run-stoppers. However, he struggled in covering opposing tight ends, a deficiency that became increasingly clear during the previous season’s playoff games against Seattle and San Francisco and caused him to fall on the depth chart to mostly a special teams player.
Nicholas will be 31 in May. Samuel is 33.
Samuel, an 11-year pro, could be at the end of what might end up being a Hall of Fame career, as he has had trouble staying healthy in each of the past two seasons. He was a two-time Super Bowl winner during his days with New England. His 51 interceptions are tied for 32nd in league history. He is fourth among active players behind Ed Reed, Charles Woodson and Champ Bailey.
Samuel’s first season in Atlanta (2012) was a difficult one for him on a personal level, as his mother passed away of ALS during the season. Falcons head coach Mike Smith granted Samuel time during the season to visit her in Florida.
Samuel was particularly close with his mother, as he founded a charity "Bring It Home Single Moms’ in her honor. Christine Samuel lived in a hotel room during Asante’s rookie season of 2003 and when he won the Super Bowl with the Patriots that season, he used his winner’s check to purchase her a condominium.
A player known for his sharp wit and for antics that were outrageous at times off the field, he mostly took his benching in stride and did not criticize the decision of the Falcons’ coaching staff.
The Falcons could have more difficult roster decisions coming up, including veterans such as running back Steven Jackson and defensive end Osi Umenyiora, two players who are aging and were not very productive last season as the Falcons went 4-12.