Falcons release 3 key players to help salary cap

The Atlanta Falcons started their youth movement Friday by

ditching three key players from the most successful era in

franchise history.

The Falcons released running back Michael Turner, defensive end

John Abraham and cornerback Dunta Robinson, moves that were not

unexpected given their age (all in their 30s) and hefty

salaries.

Still, it was a stunning start to Atlanta’s offseason makeover,

especially for a team that came up just short of the Super Bowl,

losing to San Francisco in a thrilling NFC championship game. In

one swoop, the Falcons let go their top rusher, their leader in

sacks, and a starter in the secondary.

”These are never easy decisions to make,” general manager

Thomas Dimitroff said. ”A lot of thought goes into these type of

decisions.”

The moves free up about $16 million in salary cap space, money

that Dimitroff intends to use to build a younger roster. Last year,

the Falcons were one of the oldest teams in the league.

”They were business decisions,” he said. ”They were decisions

made for us to continue to look at the direction of this football

team. We have a number of positions that we need to hone in on,

whether if it’s in the draft or potentially acquiring (players) in

free agency. That’s all that I can really say at this point,

because there are a lot of moving parts.”

Dimitroff said the moves had ”very little” to do with whether

Tony Gonzalez might return in 2013. The tight end indicated all

last season that he was likely to retire, but has not made a final

decision. He said it would likely be well into the offseason before

he makes anything official.

The 31-year-old Turner was the first big free-agent signing

under the Dimitroff-Smith regime in 2008. The bruising back rushed

for 1,699 yards his first season and more than 1,300 yards two

other years. But his playing time dipped dramatically in 2012 as

the Falcons gave more carries to a totally different kind of back,

Jacquizz Rodgers, who provided more speed and quickness.

Turner rushed for 800 yards this past season, the lowest of his

five-year Atlanta stint, with 10 touchdowns. He averaged a

career-low 3.6 yards per carry.

Abraham has been the Falcons’ only consistent pass rusher since

being acquired from the New York Jets in 2006. At age 34, he led

the team with 10 sacks but had to cut back on his snaps in a bid to

stay healthy. He wasn’t much of a factor in the playoffs after

injuring his left ankle in the final regular-season game.

Over his Falcons career, Abraham had 68 1-2 sacks. His departure

means defensive end will be one of Dimitroff’s top priorities in

the free agency.

The 30-year-old Robinson signed with Atlanta in 2010 and became

a steady figure in the secondary, known especially for his bruising

hits. He had four interceptions over the past three seasons.

The Falcons were an NFC-leading 13-3 last year, their fifth

straight winning season. Since 2008, they have made the playoffs

four times and won two division titles.

”It is never easy to cut any player, especially veteran players

who have been valuable members of the organization,” Falcons coach

Mike Smith said. ”The guys we released today have contributed to

the success that we have had over the last five years, and we

greatly appreciate their efforts.”

While Dimitroff will surely be looking at free agents such as

St. Louis running back Steven Jackson, who could opt out of his

deal, the first priority is re-signing some of the team’s own free

agents, such as safety William Moore and offensive tackle Sam

Baker. Also, the Falcons have to make plans to fit in a long-term

extension for quarterback Matt Ryan.

”Our focus has always been to make sure that we hone in on our

players that are currently on our team in our attempt to re-sign

our football players,” Dimitroff said. ”That’s going to be our

focus, first and foremost.”