Defensive front seven personnel was a top priority entering free agency Tuesday, but the angle taken to upgrade by the Atlanta Falcons was a bit of a surprise.
In the opening hour of the free agent signing period, defensive linemen Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai agreed to terms with the Falcons on multi-year contracts. The initial implication is the Falcons didn't just add great size -- Atlanta added experienced, productive foundation pieces for a shift to a 3-4 defense.
While general manager Thomas Dimitroff indicated this week the Falcons would be "more multiple" adding the wide-bodied Soliai with a $14.5 million guarantee as part of a five-year, $33 million contract and Jackson, a two-gap defender drafted by assistant general manager Scott Pioli as the third overall pick out of LSU. He signed a five-year, $25 million deal.
The moves were part of a flurry of activity to kick off free agency. Offensive guard Jon Asamoah, another former Pioli draft pick, agreed to terms Tuesday.
"We were focused on adding pieces along our offensive and defensive lines and I feel we were able to accomplish that today," Dimitroff said Tuesday. "We believe that Paul and Tyson will add stoutness and grittiness to our defensive front and will help in the run game. Jon is a solid offensive lineman that has started 41 games during his four-year career that will bring some ruggedness to our offensive front."
Atlanta kept defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux with a three-year deal worth $9 million and $4 million guaranteed in 2014 and retained offensive lineman Joe Hawley on a two-year contract extension. Financial terms were not disclosed.
Babineaux (6-foot-2, 300 pounds) was selected by the Falcons in the second round of the 2005 NFL Draft out of Iowa. He has played in 138 career games with 108 starts including all 16 games in each of the last two seasons.
Safety Thomas DeCoud, who started all but two games in the past five seasons, was officially released. He was a Pro Bowl alternate in 2012 after signing a five-year, $17.5 million deal. He joins a pile of veteran contributors on the unemployment line including cornerback Asante Samuel and Stephen Nicholas.
In nine seasons with the Falcons, Babineaux, 32, has totaled 370 tackles (263 solo), 23.5 sacks, three interceptions, 20 passes defensed, 10 fumble recoveries and nine forced fumbles. He recorded 49 tackles (37 solo) with one sack, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble in 2013.
Hawley was a fourth-round pick in 2010, and has played in 53 career games, with all seven starts coming at center last season.
The Falcons also announced they have released tight end Tony Gonzalez, the future Hall of Famer who has announced he intends to retire.
"We would like to begin by thanking Tony for his contributions to our organization, community and fan base over the last five seasons," Dimitroff said. "There is no doubt that he is the best tight end to ever play the game and will have a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Tony was the consummate professional that led by example. He was one of the hardest working players I have ever been around and has left a lasting impact on this team."
"This was a decision we had to make with the start of the new League year as we begin retooling our roster for 2014. On behalf of the entire Falcons organization, we wish Tony all the best in his television career and thank him for everything he did for this franchise."
Gonzalez, who spent his first 12 NFL seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, caught 409 passes for 4,187 yards and 35 touchdowns over the past five seasons with the Falcons.
--Mark Collins, who has been a defensive assistant for the past four seasons, was promoted to outside linebackers coach, the team announced on Monday.
The Falcons also added Andrew Thacker as a defensive assistant.
"We are pleased to promote Mark to outside linebacker coach," said Falcons Head Coach Mike Smith in a statement released by the team. "He has proved to be a valuable part of our coaching staff the last four seasons and we are confident that he will continue to help develop our outside linebackers. Andrew is a young coach who has experience in major college football and we feel he will be an asset to our staff."
Thacker, a native of Cartersville who played safety at Gainesville High and Furman, was the safeties coach at Southern Mississippi last season. He previously coached at Oklahoma State and Central Florida.
CHURCH MOVES FOR STADIUM: After 53 years at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. and Northside Drives in downtown Atlanta, Mount Vernon Baptist Church held its final service there Sunday morning.
It was a three-plus hour event marked by sad exit processional in which the 200 or so who attended followed the Rev. R.K. Turner down the center aisle and out of the sanctuary, never to return.
Mount Vernon's congregation last September voted to approve a $14.5 million agreement to vacate, clearing the way for the Falcons to build on the land, which is located just south of the Georgia Dome where they now play.
A second, older, historic black church, Friendship Baptist, which sits just across the street from Mount Vernon, sold for $19.5 million, and also will move.
--Peria Jerry was selected with the 24th pick in 2009, two picks before the Green Bay Packers selected Clay Matthews III. While Jerry battled injuries, Matthews turned into a four-time Pro Bowler and was the Sporting News' defensive player of the year in 2010.
After coming back from the knee injury, Jerry played sparingly in 2010.
The Falcons' position of not announcing details of injuries helped fuel the perception that Jerry's has been a bust. In the second game of his career he suffered what was described as a "severe" injury. But the details were never forthcoming.
In 2010, he played about 30 percent of the snaps, but was inconsistent. The following season he started four of the 16 games that he played in. In 2012, he started nine of 14 games as he played some defensive end when the Falcons were in a 3-4.
Last season, he played 678 snaps, had 37 tackles and 3.5 sacks.
Jerry told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he wanted to return.
"Whatever happens, happens," Jerry said. "You (don't) have any control over that. Really, we are just playing it by ear to see what happens. There is nothing that you can do about it. That's the people upstairs' decision.
"I started here and would love to stay here."
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--TIGHT END: The Falcons released tight end Tony Gonzalez, who is set to retire and join the TV booth next season. They don't have an experienced tight end on the roster.
--FREE SAFETY: Thomas DeCoud was also released. His poor angles and lack of toughness will no longer be tolerated. The Falcons will sift through the leftovers in free agency to find a replacement.
--OFFENSIVE TACKLE: Both tackles, Sam Baker and Mike Johnson, are coming back from surgery. The team is in prime draft country to land a great tackle prospect.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers)
--WR Kevin Cone (not tendered as ERFA).
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--TE Chase Coffman played in 10 games last season.
--CB Dominique Franks was a contributor on special teams and provided depth in the secondary. He's young and has experience as a nickel back.
--LB Omar Gaither was signed as insurance last season as the team took on injuries at the linebacker spot. He may be a valuable veteran reserve.
--DT Peria Jerry he has been unproductive after being selected in the first round of the 2009 draft. He is a rotational player who shows flashes while rushing up the field. His return is unlikely.
--T Sean Locklear was signed as insurance last season, but never saw the field. He's not likely to return.
--T Jeremy Trueblood started 10 of 15 games last season, but the team is looking to upgrade the position. He is not expected to return.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--CB Robert McClain (tendered at $1.431M with 7th-round pick as compensation) played nickel the last two seasons. He was solid in 2012, but did not hold up early in 2013 and was replaced in the lineup. He rebounded and played well down the stretch after being reinserted into the lineup.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS
--WR Drew Davis (tendered $570,000) was a valuable reserve who will compete for a backup spot in training camp.
--S Jonathan Babineaux: Potential UFA; 3 yrs, terms unknown.
--C/G Joe Hawley: Potential UFA; $6.5M/2 yrs, $3M guaranteed.
--LB Justin Hickman: Potential ERFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--T/G Mike Johnson: Potential RFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--DT Corey Peters: Potential UFA; $1M/1 yr.
--G Jon Asamoah: UFA Chiefs; $22.5M/5 yrs, $8M guaranteed.
--OL Gabe Carimi: FA Buccaneers; $850,000/1 yr, $65,000 SB.
--DT Tyson Jackson: UFA Chiefs: $25M/5 yrs.
--DT Paul Soliai: UFA Dolphins; $33M/5 yrs, $14M guaranteed.
--S Thomas DeCoud (released/post-June 1 designation)
--TE Tony Gonzalez (retired).
--LB Stephen Nicholas (released).
--G Garrett Reynolds (released).
--CB Asante Samuel (released).
--RB Jason Snelling (retired).
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