Every year just before the start of free agency, you have a number of veteran players get cut by their respective teams because they are either too old, too hurt, or too expensive to keep. These players are often labeled cap casualties, and can supplement the normal unrestricted free agent pool that we see every March.
The Falcons will have their own players that could be dumped in this fashion. Michael Turner, Ovie Mughelli, Sam Baker, Peria Jerry, and Dunta Robinson are all players that are under contract and the topic has at least been broached that they have seen their last games as Falcons. In all likelihood the Falcons will keep most if not all of those players simply because they don’t need the cap space as reports indicate roughly $30 million available to the Falcons. And for those that are underachieving such as Baker, Jerry, and Robinson, there is some hope that the changes in the coaching staff can breath new life into their careers in Atlanta.
Here are some names that have been bandied about in recent weeks as potential cap cuts from other teams that could at least be interesting to the Falcons. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list of players that could be cut, but just some more of the prominent names and fits I could find. A hat tip goes to Jason La Canfora of NFL.com and Brian McIntyre of Football Outsiders that were my primary sources.
The Falcons appear intent on keeping Michael Turner, so this doesn’t appear to be an area that they will likely address. But if the Falcons were to part ways with Turner and look for a veteran physical back to team with Jacquizz Rodgers, Brandon Jacobs (Giants) could be a possibility. Jacobs at this point in his career is a part-time player, but as he showed against the Falcons in the playoffs and down the stretch, he can be very effective in that role.
If you could rewind five years, this list would feature some of the league’s top wide receivers with Hines Ward (Steelers), Chad Ochocinco (Patriots), Lee Evans (Ravens), and Donald Driver (Packers) all being potentially on the chopping block this off-season. The Falcons have already been linked to Ward by some outlets, but he is a shell of his former self. He along with Driver could make effective veteran slot options if the Falcons were to lose Harry Douglas via free agency, but neither offer as much value as Douglas does at these points in their careers. Ochocinco and Evans have a bit more left in the tank, and could definitely help the Falcons add a third wideout that can get vertical. Evan was supposed to serve that same role with the Ravens last year, but only caught 4 passes in 9 games. Ochocinco couldn’t handle the complex Patriots offense (15 catches), but he still has enough skill to be a starter on some team in this league. And playing in a decidedly less complex offense like the one likely to be employed in Atlanta could help him improve his production.
Dirk Koetter’s offense makes ample use of the H-back position, a role that would likely be currently filled by Michael Palmer. But the Falcons could potentially upgrade that spot by going after one of these names in Chris Cooley (Redskins), Dallas Clark (Colts), or Kellen Winslow (Buccaneers). Cooley and Winslow are both dealing with knee injuries that could definitely limit their effectiveness. Clark was practically a no-show for much of the Colts season with the loss of Peyton Manning. Cooley and Clark could work very well in an H-back role, being split out in space much like a slot receiver. Winslow if he can rebound potentially offers the team an heir apparent to Tony Gonzalez, who is expected to retire after this season.
The Falcons have already been linked to Marcus McNeill, who could be cut by the Chargers due to lingering back and neck problems. Injury concerns and age will also likely cause the Packers to cut Chad Clifton as well. While McNeill will only be 28, his injuries probably make his body seem closer that of the 35-year old Clifton. Clifton is not a long-term fix, but as a one-year solution even if he only played half the season would be 8 better games than what the Falcons have gotten out of the position in recent years. Also in the mix could be Jason Smith, who has disappointed in St. Louis, but might still be a salvageable talent. Right tackles Jammal Brown (Redskins) and Winston Justice (Eagles) might also be cut this off-season due to making more money than their production merits. Brown was once a solid left tackle for the Saints, before injuries have sapped him the past few years.
Steve Hutchinson (Vikings), Eric Steinbach (Browns), and Chris Kemoeatu (Steelers) all could be cut. All three are left guards, but could offer a quick fix at the right guard position for the Falcons. Hutchinson was the top guard in the league for years, but at age 34 might only have another year left in the tank. Kemoeatu could offer a beefy run blocker, but struggled through this past year with a bum knee and penalties. Steinbach missed all of this past year with a back injury, which never bodes well for offensive linemen.
While it seems doubtful, the Colts could part ways with Dwight Freeney. If so, Freeney still offers a lot of value as a pass rusher. But if the Falcons are content to let John Abraham walk via free agency, replacing him with a 32-year old Freeney would not be a significant infusion of youth. Aaron Kampman has been injured a lot in Jacksonville, but could provide a veteran presence to the rotation if the Falcons were to lose Abraham and potentially Kroy Biermann as well. Darryl Tapp (Eagles) is a good run defender and decent pass rusher that can be an effective starter if need be, but ideally is a No. 3 end on most teams.
It doesn’t seem like the Lions will part ways with 31-year old Corey Williams, but it’s been rumored. He would be a good pickup to the Falcons rotation, as he’s shined over the years as a situational rusher on third downs. Tommy Kelly (Raiders) is the same age and has been a solid pass rusher over the years (14.5 sacks combined the past two years) that could be a really good asset in nickel situations for the Falcons. His teammate John Henderson could beef up the rotation as a stout run defender. He’s on his last legs, but could potentially provide more value as a run defender on early downs, which could allow a young guy like Corey Peters to do what he does best: rush the quarterback.
The Panthers might part ways with Thomas Davis, who is coming off three ACL tears. If he manages to even play in 2012, it might be unprecedented achievement. But Davis offers much of what this team needs at the linebacker position, which is someone that can help combat the quality tight ends in the league, and in this division. The Panthers were the league’s worst team with defending the tight end in 2011, and a big reason was the absence of Davis. Gary Brackett (Colts) might be cut if the Colts do intend to employ a different scheme. He would be a nice pickup for the Falcons if they lose Curtis Lofton in the middle.
A number of veterans are likely to get cut here. Domonique Foxworth (Ravens) is a former Falcon that has struggled to stay healthy in Baltimore, but is only 28 and still might have some years left ahead of him. Ron Bartell (Rams) offers that big, physical corner that Mike Nolan’s defenses tend to prefer but he’ll have to prove he can stay healthy. Shawntae Spencer (49ers) played under Nolan in San Francisco, and he along with Terence Newman (Cowboys) and Marcus Trufant (Seahawks) are veterans that could help out at nickel. But it remains to be seen if any of those guys would be better options for the Falcons than just re-signing a player like Kelvin Hayden. Cedric Griffin (Vikings) is fast and physical and could be a nice pickup.
As for safeties, Michael Huff (Raiders) is a former teammate of Griffin’s at Texas, that also brings a lot of speed and athletic ability to that position. He could be a nice pickup as a replacement and potential upgrade over Thomas DeCoud at free safety.
It’s also worth mentioning that while they aren’t expected to be cut, cornerback Asante Samuel (Eagles) and defensive end Osi Umenyiora (Giants) appear headed for the trading block. Considering the Falcons have a finite amount of draft picks, it’s doubtful they would get heavily involved in courting either, particularly Samuel. The Falcons defense prides itself on being physical, and Samuel is anything but that as a cornerback. But he is still one of the premier ball-hawks in the league, and coupling him with a successfully re-signed Brent Grimes could be a potent mix. Umenyiora might be a bit more up the Falcons alley. He’s 30, which makes him a few years younger than either Freeney or Abraham and thus probably has a bit more left in the tank. The issue with him is whether he can give the Falcons a full slate of games. He missed 7 games this past year with injury. Also, Osi isn’t exactly known for his ability to defend the run. The same could have been said for John Abraham prior to joining the Falcons, and he improved, so that might not be as big an obstacle as initially perceived.