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Falcons have several players in contract year

The Sports Xchange
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The Falcons are situated nicely for a stretch run over the second half of the season with a highly motivated roster.

The Falcons have 20 players, or 37.7 percent of the 53-man roster, in the final year of their contracts. They have key veterans, emerging young players and role players who are in their last year of their contracts.

Center Todd McClure, defensive end John Abraham and tight end Tony Gonzalez are the key veterans.

Over the offseason, with things in a state of flux because of the labor strife, Gonzalez contemplated retirement if the lockout was not lifted. When the labor deal was settled, he decided to play his 15th season. He'll worry later about his status for a 16th.

"I don't know yet," Gonzalez said. "We're just halfway through. We have eight games left. That will come up, but right now, I'm just trying to get this victory this week and get my back healthy."

Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, cornerback Brent Grimes and safety Thomas DeCoud are key emerging players.

Lofton has started since his rookie season in 2008. He leads the team in tackles with 90, according to the coaches' stats.

Lofton doesn't suspect that he'll leave or that the Falcons will let him test free agency.

"This is my final year," Lofton said. "I love Atlanta, and I believe Atlanta loves me."

The two sides likely will broach the issue of an extension soon.

"Right now, I'm not too much focused on that," Lofton said. "I'm just focusing on leading my team and getting wins. At the end of the season or whenever, we'll handle that later on."

Securing Lofton is key because he has taken on a leadership role on the defense.

"I think Curtis has had a very solid season for us thus far," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "I think the thing that I've noticed the most is his blitzing, and when he's attacking the quarterback and pressuring, he's done a really good job."

Also, Grimes is having a strong season. He's playing this season after signing a tender offer.

Wide receiver Harry Douglas and defensive end Kroy Biermann are key reserves in the last year of their contracts.

The Falcons' hands may be tied in working some extensions. They have used 98.6 percent of the $123.3 million salary cap this season, the third highest percentage in the NFL. They have $1.6 million in cap room. Only the New York Giants ($1.5 million) and Pittsburgh ($1.01 million) have less room.

Other players playing the last year of their contracts include: cornerback Kelvin Hayden, safety James Sanders, quarterback Chris Redman, return man Eric Weems, running back Jason Snelling, linebacker Mike Peterson, center Brett Romberg, offensive lineman Kirk Chambers, tight end Michael Palmer, long snapper Joe Zelenka, tight end Reggie Kelly and defensive tackle Vance Walker.

--Falcons running back Michael Turner is having another fine campaign.

After rushing for more than 100 yards in two straight games, he was on his way to another 100-yard game when the team pulled him with 2:50 left in the third quarter.

He finished with 71 yards on 19 carries. At the halfway point of the season, Turner is on pace to rush for 1,384 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Much has been made of the Falcons trading for rookie wide receiver Julio Jones, but the Falcons plan to remain primarily a running team.

"We want to be able to run the football," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "Mike has had the majority of the snaps."

The Falcons plan to lighten Turner's load.

"We gave more snaps to Jason (Snelling), we gave more snaps to Jacquizz (Rodgers) and then, of course, we had Julio carry the ball twice as well in the ballgame against the Colts, Smith said. "We want to evaluate the load and the workload of our players. It's something that you have a great opportunity during the bye week to evaluate and it's something that we did and we revisited. We went into this game knowing that we wanted to spread the touches around and not have them so concentrated in one area."

Since signing with the Falcons as a free agent before the 2008 season, Turner has scored 46 touchdowns in 51 games, which ranks second in the league over that period.

In 2008, he set a franchise record with 17 rushing touchdowns and last season he had 12 touchdowns.

Only Minnesota's Adrian Peterson has scored more rushing touchdowns in the last four seasons than Turner.

After scoring a touchdown against the Colts, Turner pulled within two scores of Gerald Riggs' franchise record for career rushing touchdowns. Riggs, who played for the Falcons from 1982 through 1988, scored 48 touchdowns.

Turner's 46 touchdowns are the fourth most overall touchdowns in team history with wide receiver Terance Mathis owning the club record with 57 career scores. This season, Turner has seven rushing touchdowns.

Since arriving in Atlanta in 2008, Turner has rushed for 4,633 yards, 46 touchdowns and 90.8 yards per game. Turner is one of only two running backs in the NFL to amass 4,000 rushing yards and 40 touchdowns since 2008. His yardage total ranks third in the league during that time span while his yards per game average ranks second.

He ranks third in the NFL in "big runs" rolling off 116 runs of 10 or more yards in his four seasons in Atlanta.

Turner already has a handful of team records including most rushing yards in a game (220), most points scored in a game (24), most touchdowns in a season (17) and most touchdowns in a game (4)

His next 100-yard game will tie Riggs for the most 100-yard games in team history. He has 23 and Riggs had 24.

After just four seasons, Turner's 4,633 yards already ranks fifth on the team's all-time rushing list. He is the shortest tenured player in the team's top five and trails running back Jamal Anderson by 703 yards for fourth place.

SERIES HISTORY
84th regular-season meeting. Falcons lead series, 45-38. The Saints have owned the Falcons in the Sean Payton era. They have won their past two games in Atlanta and four of five contests there overall under Payton. Since taking over in 2006, Payton is 8-2 against the Falcons. In the last meeting on Dec. 27, the Saints won 17-14. New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham caught a 6-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Drew Brees with 3:24 remaining for the decisive points.

Copyright (C) 2011 The Sports Xchange. All Rights Reserved.

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