Falcons cut 3 starters to clear cap space

The Atlanta Falcons took a meat cleaver to the roster that got them within 10 yards of the Super Bowl on Friday, cutting veteran defensive end John Abraham, the team’s leader in sacks in 2012, high-priced cornerback Dunta Robinson and, as expected, running back Michael Turner.

With the freed-up cap space – reportedly $16 million in savings – the Falcons could be in position now to make a trade for disgruntled New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis or to sign defensive end Dwight Freeney, who was recently cut by Indianapolis. Previously, Falcons wide receiver Roddy White had tweeted that he thought the organization should go after Freeney – although he probably did not expect that trio to get cut for the Falcons to be able to do it.

In terms of offensive players, it’s possible the moves were necessary to clear money to re-sign Tony Gonzalez, should the future hall of fame tight end elect to return for one more season. Last year, he played for about $7 million. Free-agent running Steven Jackson also could be a target, although it’s possible the Falcons would go with a less-pricey option in the draft. Washington found running back Alfred Morris last year in the sixth round and Morris rushed for 1,613 yards.

On Thursday, a column in the New York Daily News suggested that the New York Jets were concerned that Revis could end up signing with AFC East Division rival New England after the 2013 season. A trade to the Falcons would be a safe place for the Jets to send him and Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff is said to be dreaming big this offseason.

The Falcons, through their official Twitter accounted, tweeted out some messages from Dimitroff. He said that all three players contributed greatly to the team.

“These moves were business decisions,” he said through the account of a team employee. “Made to let us look at the direction of the football team. There are a lot of moving parts.”

Dimitroff said the focus would be on re-signing the team’s own players, including two who are coming off career years: left tackle Sam Baker and safety William Moore, who went to the Pro Bowl following the season. Those players should get raises which makes the Falcons’ tight cap situation even tougher.

The move to cut Turner was largely expected, as his production fell dramatically over the years, including 2012 when he had lowest overall rushing yards and lowest yards per carry.

The move that carries the biggest risk is that of cutting Abraham, who posted 10 sacks last season for the Falcons – by far the most on the team – along with six forced fumbles. The Falcons ranked 28th in the league in sacks last season, totaling only 29.

Nonetheless, Abraham, who will be 35 in May, has been injury-prone throughout his career. In the final 10 games of the regular season, Abraham recorded only four sacks and was largely ineffective in the postseason, although he did injure his ankle in the regular season finale – a game in which head coach Mike Smith elected to play him despite the Falcons’ already having locked up the NFC’s top seed for the playoffs.

Robinson clearly was a casualty of the six-year, $57-million contract he signed in 2010 when the Falcons were desperate to upgrade the position. The deal had $25 million in guaranteed money but most of it has been paid out, allowing the Falcons to save about $6 million by cutting him.

Robinson also was hurt by the emerging depth the Falcons have at the position. Asante Samuel will likely play the left corner next season and Robert McClain was a surprising find at the nickel. Brent Grimes, who missed almost all of last season with an Achilles tendon tear, returns and, owing to the injury, the Falcons will not have to pay him nearly as much as they did last year when they hit him with the franchise tag and paid him about $10 million.

Robinson, 30, was a big hitter for the Falcons and defended the run well, but he never played in coverage quite as well as the Falcons would have hoped. Twice in games against Tampa Bay last season, he missed plays because he had to come out of the game after leading with his head on hits – both of which were legal plays. He finished last season with 96 tackles, 1.5 sacks, one interception and one forced fumble. In his three seasons with Atlanta, he had only four interceptions and one forced fumble.By cutting Turner, the Falcons were expected to get $8 to $9 million under the cap. Now, they will have even more cap savings.

Abraham would have been in the second year of a deal that would pay him $17.7 million, including a cap hit of about $7 million for the coming season.

A few Falcons took to Twitter to offer salutes to now former teammates. Moore re-tweeted a fan who posted, “Thanks to John Abraham, Michael Turner, and Dunta Robinson for everything you’ve done for @Atlanta_Falcons and the city! Salute!”

And veteran linebacker Mike Peterson, who is a long shot to return himself, posted “D-block!! It’s only right! #salute”. D-block is the name of the videos the team posts on Friday on its Web site with antics from the defensive players.