Falcons taking lumps in early days of free agency
ATLANTA (AP) - After coming up far short in their Super Bowl push, the Atlanta Falcons took some big hits in the first few days of free agency.
The Falcons lost five starters and picked up only one notable player, fullback Ovie Mughelli, a fierce blocker who's rushed for a grand total of 50 yards in four NFL seasons.
Defensive end Patrick Kerney is the most prominent defection. The 2004 Pro Bowler opted out of his contract and agreed to a $39.5 million deal with Seattle late Monday, saying he felt the Seahawks gave him the best chance to win a Super Bowl.
Kerney's new contract includes $19.5 million in guaranteed money, which the Falcons had no chance of matching under the salary cap. They went into free agency with only about $10 million to spend, and have just over $6 million left.
On Friday, the first day of free agency, the Falcons released injury-plagued middle linebacker Ed Hartwell, along with special teams ace Ike Reese. And when Mughelli agreed to an $18 million deal that included a $5 million signing bonus, Atlanta decided against retaining incumbent fullback Justin Griffith, a free agent.
General manager Rich McKay wasn't available for comment Tuesday, but the Falcons clearly are paying a price for owner Arthur Blank's decision to spend freely the last few years, including a $137 million deal for quarterback Michael Vick.
After reaching the NFC championship game during the 2004 season, Blank made it clear he expected to go even farther last season with high-profile additions on defense. The Falcons signed three-time Pro Bowl end John Abraham to a $45 million deal with $18 million in guaranteed money. They also picked up safety Lawyer Milloy and nose tackle Grady Jackson.
After a strong start, Atlanta slumped badly in the second half of the season for the second year in a row, costing coach Jim Mora his job. Abraham sustained a groin injury in the season opener and wound up playing only eight games.
The Falcons replaced Mora with Bobby Petrino, who built an offensive juggernaut at Louisville and is putting his own stamp on a 7-9 team.
The new coach wanted a bigger fullback than Griffith to block in the running game and provide more protection for Vick, who became the first QB in league history to rush for 1,000 yards but was sacked 45 times. The Falcons released Lehr because Petrino is getting away from the zone-blocking schemes favored by former line coach Alex Gibbs and wants bigger, stronger players up front.
The 255-pound Mughelli has already spoken with Vick on the phone.
``I told him as long as I'm playing, he doesn't have to worry about being touched,'' Mughelli said Tuesday on ESPN's ``Cold Pizza.''
The Falcons also signed linebacker Marcus Wilkins from Cincinnati to fill the special teams role held by Reese, and they were meeting Tuesday at team headquarters with former New Orleans receiver Joe Horn.
Lelie wasn't much help after being acquired from Denver late in training camp. He managed just 28 receptions for 430 yards, so the Falcons made no effort to keep the former first-round pick.
Lelie claimed that he didn't get a fair shot at being a No. 1 receiver with either the Falcons or the Broncos.
``The 49ers are giving me that opportunity,'' he said. ``In the past in my career, I didn't really play well consistently. That was probably just a lack of being in the right offense and getting thrown the ball consistently. I think 49ers fans will see the best of me.''
Horn could have a huge impact in the locker room with his take-change personality, but he's clearly on the downside of his playing career. Horn turned 35 in January and missed the last four games of the regular season, plus both playoffs games, with a groin injury. He had 37 catches for 679 yards and four touchdowns before getting hurt.
``He's a veteran who is nothing but a solid receiver,'' Mughelli said. ``If he is part of the Falcons, he would be a huge asset for us.''
The Falcons have tendered contract offers to a pair of restricted free agents, backup quarterback Matt Schaub and outside linebacker Demorrio Williams. If they signed elsewhere, Atlanta would be compensated with draft picks.
There's also a chance the Falcons could try to work out a trade for Schaub, who can become an unrestricted free agent in 2008 and is viewed by many as a potential starter.FanNation.com via AP
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