Falcons’ cap needs factored in Clabo release

ATLANTA — One of the overriding themes of the

Falcons’ offseason has been to rid themselves of numerous higher-paid

veterans, even the ones who are still productive.

The

latest casualty was 31-year-old right tackle Tyson Clabo, who earned a

Pro Bowl berth following the 2010 season and received a contract in 2011

for five years and $25 million, with $11.5 million

guaranteed.

Cutting Clabo follows the March 1 purge

in which the Falcons released big-salaried veterans Michael Turner, John

Abraham (team-high 10 sacks last year) and cornerback Dunta Robinson,

who started on playoff teams for the past three

seasons.

Perhaps more than any other unit on the

field, continuity and teamwork is of the utmost importance on the

offensive line; and Clabo was a cornerstone of those concepts. He

started every game over the last five seasons and 101 of the team’s 112

regular-season games since 2006.

With the club’s

decisions to pass on re-signing long-time center Todd McClure, pushing

McClure into retirement after 13 seasons, and release Clabo, the Falcons

are essentially going with a youth movement on the

O-line.

The left side of the line is set, as the

Falcons re-signed tackle Sam Baker and guard Justin Blalock remains

under contract. But the other three positions — center, right guard and

right tackle — loom as something of a mystery. The Falcons have not had

this much upheaval on the line since head coach Mike Smith and general

manager Thomas Dimitroff arrived in 2008.

One of the

three vacancies will likely be filled by Peter Konz, the team’s

second-round draft pick last year. Konz, who played center in college at

Wisconsin, started 10 rookie games at right guard and is sure to be

stronger and improved in the coming season. The Falcons have the option

of playing him at center or right guard.

The Falcons

also have re-signed Garrett Reynolds, who has started 13 games at right

guard over the last two seasons with mixed results. In Clabo’s place,

the Falcons could see a competition between Mike Johnson, a third-round

pick in 2010 out of Alabama, and 2012 third-round pick Lamar

Holmes.

Both players would be relatively green.

Technically, Johnson has one start in his career, but that came in a

short-yardage situation as a sixth lineman. Last season, he moved up the

depth chart and played the jumbo tight end, which the Falcons reserve

for their top lineman, who is not a starter.

Holmes

was hurt for all of the offseason and most of training camp last year

and so it’s hard to get a read on where he stands. He played in only two

regular season games. At 6-foot-6, 333 pounds, he is a behemoth, more

in the mode of Clabo.

A less likely prospect is that

Joe Hawley, who started 12 games at right guard and center in 2011,

could compete for a spot. Hawley was suspended four games last season

for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.

The Falcons could also go the free-agent route or

look to the draft for linemen. But considering that both their top two

picks in 2012 went on linemen (no first-round pick) and with their

pressing needs on at cornerback and linebacker, it’s doubtful the

Falcons will use high picks to do so.

The move to cut

Clabo also marks something of a philosophical change. With Dirk Koetter

entering his second year as offensive coordinator, the Falcons went

from a team that pounded the ball with the run — Clabo’s forte — to one

that passed first and used the screen game.

In

addition, the change at offensive line coach from Paul Boudreau

(2008-11) to Pat Hill last season ushered in a more technique-oriented

shift — from one of physical brute force and

intimidation.

Clabo was more in the mold of the

latter. His struggles to pass protect came to light in a 30-28 win over

Carolina (Week 4), in which quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked seven times

and Panthers end Charles Johnson victimized Clabo numerous times. In

that sense, Johnson could be the favorite, as he is smaller and likely

better on his feet. Potentially, he’s also more suited to the demands of

Koetter’s offense.

In the bigger picture, the

Falcons gave themselves very little room to maneuver under the salary

cap after signing Baker, safety William Moore, tight end Tony Gonzalez,

running back Steven Jackson and, most recently, defensive end Osi

Umenyiora.

Cutting Clabo might have simply been

necessary for the Falcons to sign their draft picks. He is a good player

and will continue be a good player for another

team.

However, with his salary and with skill set,

the Falcons apparently no longer felt they could keep

him.

That is the business of the

NFL.