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D. Orlando Ledbetter

What’s next? A look at top 5 free agent targets

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Falcons assistant general manager Scott Pioli and general manager Thomas Dimitroff making the rounds along Super Bowl XLVII radio row on Thursday. (D. Orlando Ledbetter/DLedbetter@ajc.com)

Falcons assistant general manager Scott Pioli and general manager Thomas Dimitroff making the rounds along Super Bowl XLVII radio row on Thursday. (D. Orlando Ledbetter/DLedbetter@ajc.com)

After the release of cornerback Asante Samuel and linebacker Stephen Nicholas, what’s next for the Falcons?

It’s pretty clear they are going free agent shopping come March 11.

“We have a good situation as far as the cap space,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an exclusive interview at the Super Bowl in New York. “We’re good from a cap standpoint as far as entertaining certain options in free agency.”

He was clearly foreshadowing the cuts of Samuel and Nicholas.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean we are going to go big or go home,” Dimitroff said. “It does mean, however, that we’ll be very mindful of what may be out there and what may fit into our areas of need throughout our football team.”

(Interpretation: The Falcons are not going to panic and overspend.)

“Our feelings have always been that we can acquire through free agency, but we can also build through the draft,” Dimitroff said. “But we have to know where we can plug guys in who are ready to play right away.”

They clearly feel that they are fine at cornerback and linebacker with Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford, Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow.

The Falcons now have 53 players signed, but counting the top 51, per league rules, the Falcons are at $112.2 million against the cap, according to National Football League Players Association documents. The cap for next season is projected to increase 2.6 percent, to $126.3 million.

When Tony Gonzalez’s $7 million comes off the books when he submits his paperwork for retirement, the Falcons will have $21.1 million of available cap space.

The Falcons can also renegotiate some contracts to create additional room. For instance, wide receiver Roddy White’s salary-cap number of $6.3 million and left guard Justin Blalock’s salary-cap number of $7.6 million could be reduced with a two- or three-year extension.

The Falcons have to make decisions on their own free agents by the end of the month and more veterans could be released to create more salary-cap room.

The Falcons’ list of potential unrestricted free agents include defensive linemen Jonathan Babineaux, Peria Jerry and Corey Peters, offensive linemen Joe Hawley, Mike Johnson, Sean Locklear and Jeremy Trueblood, tight end Chase Coffman, cornerback Dominique Franks and linebacker Omar Gaither.

Babineaux, 32, is perhaps the team’s best defensive lineman. He told The Atlanta Journal-

Constitution that he wants to return. He just completed a five-year, $25 million contract. A more modest two-year or three-year deal seems workable.

Hawley has been a valuable reserve. Peters (Achilles) and Johnson (ankle) suffered season-ending injuries, and that complicates their contract situations.

The Falcons could elect to part ways with more veterans. Free safety Thomas DeCoud ($4.2 million) is the most likely candidate if they are able to sign Jairus Byrd in free agency.

While the Falcons still plan to build through the draft, they have to seriously consider free agency this offseason to improve their offensive and defensive lines. Rarely do draft picks come in and have an instant impact in the trenches.

HERE ARE THE TOP FIVE POSSIBLE FREE AGENT TARGETS FOR THE FALCONS

Jairus Byrd is on the move. (Rick Havner/Associated Press)

Jairus Byrd is on the move. (Rick Havner/Associated Press)

1. JAIRUS BYRD, FS, BUFFALO: Seattle’s Earl Thomas showed how a free safety with great range can allow the others to roam and terrorized. Byrd doesn’t get beat and makes plays on the ball. His father Gill Byrd was a legend with the San Diego Chargers.We covered him back when he was the Packers’ executive director/player programs and community affairs.   

2. MICHAEL JOHNSON, DE, CINCINNATI: The former Georgia Tech standout has the high FBI (Football Intelligence) the Falcons like. He had 11.5 sacks in 2012.

3. GREG HARDY, DE, CAROLINA: This would be the classic double-hit. The Falcons could get stronger and hurt one of their main rivals. He’s a little too bizarre for the Falcons who may be a little careful after the Ray Edwards experiment.

4. ALEX MACK, C, CLEVELAND: He’s just 28 and perhaps tired of losing. He’d anchor the interior of the line.

5. BRANDEN ALBERT, T, KANSAS CITY: He’d have to be fine with playing right tackle because the Falcons believe that Sam Baker is their left tackle.

OTHER UFAS TO KEEP AN EYE ON: Michael Bennett, DE, Seattle; Randy Starks, DT, Miami (played for defensive coordinator Mike Nolan); Geoff Schwartz, OG, Kansas City (well-traveled, but productive); Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jacksonville (played for offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter); Karlos Dansby, LB, Arizona (played for Nolan).

PAYROLL MATTERS

A look at the Falcons’ 12 highest salary-cap numbers entering the offseason

Name, Pos.; Cap number

Matt Ryan, QB; $17.5 million

Justin Blalock, LG; $7.6 million

Roddy White, WR; $6.3 million

Sam Baker, LT; $6.05 million

Julio Jones, WR; $5.1 million

William Moore, SS; $5.1 million

Thomas DeCoud, FS; $4.8 million

Osi Umenyiora, DE; $4.75 million

Steven Jackson, RB, $4.166 million

Sean Weatherspoon, LB, $4.132 million

Kroy Biermann, DE/LB, $4.083 million

Harry Douglas, WR, $3.6 million

Source: NFL Players Association documents

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