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Falcons worried about re-signing big names headed for free agency

Atlanta linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who is seen leaving the team’s practice facility in Flowery Branch on Tuesday after cleaning out his locker following the end of the Falcons’ season, will be back next year, but he could be playing without many of his teammates on the defense, like Curtis Lofton, John Abraham, Thomas DeCoud and Brent Grimes, all of whom are free agents.

Atlanta linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who is seen leaving the team’s practice facility in Flowery Branch on Tuesday after cleaning out his locker following the end of the Falcons’ season, will be back next year, but he could be playing without many of his teammates on the defense, like Curtis Lofton, John Abraham, Thomas DeCoud and Brent Grimes, all of whom are free agents.

FLOWERY BRANCH — The Falcons are in danger of losing many of their top defensive players as free agents.

Atlanta's defensive statistical leaders who could be free agents are linebacker Curtis Lofton (tackles), defensive end John Abraham (sacks), safety Thomas DeCoud (interceptions) and cornerback Brent Grimes (passes defensed).

The Falcons have 20 players who can become free agents March 13, including 17 who would be unrestricted free agents. The unusually long list includes longtime starting center Todd McClure, backup quarterback Chris Redman, No. 3 receiver Harry Douglas, backup running back Jason Snelling and return specialist Eric Weems.

It looks to be a busy offseason for general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith.

Smith said his staff's first priority is making evaluations on every player.

“The first thing we have to do is we have to evaluate our roster from top to bottom and have meetings in terms of the evaluations of our players from this season,” Smith said Monday. “We have a lot of decisions to make in regards to players that are reaching free agency.”

Other notable names on the list are linebacker Mike Peterson, defensive backs Kelvin Hayden and James Sanders and defensive end Kroy Biermann. Defensive tackle Vance Walker could be a restricted free agent.

Lofton, the fourth-year middle linebacker, and Grimes, who has emerged as a top cover cornerback, are especially important players for the Falcons' long-term future. Abraham proved with his team-leading 9 ½ sacks that he's still an effective pass-rusher, but at 33 he is nearing the end of his career.

McClure, 34, has been with Atlanta for each of his 13 seasons.

“He definitely wants to continue to play,” McClure's agent, Rick Smith, said Tuesday.

The Falcons made their first personnel move on Jan. 1 by re-signing tight end Tony Gonzalez to a one-year extension.

Dimitroff said completing the deal with Gonzalez “makes things a lot easier to see where we're going moving forward, trying to get the rest of our deals done.”

Atlanta's defense already lost coordinator Brian VanGorder, who left to take the same role with Auburn on Monday, one day after the Falcons' 24-2 loss to the New York Giants in the NFC wild-card playoffs. The loss came after a 10-6 regular season, which Smith acknowledged was a disappointment following a 13-3 finish in 2010.

VanGorder had been on Smith's staff since Smith was hired by Atlanta in 2008. Smith also faces the possibility of losing offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, who is a candidate for head coach positions with Jacksonville and Miami.

“Every offseason is different,” Smith said. “This one has its unique set of circumstances you have to work through. That's the great thing of being a coach and being a part of the organization in terms of being the co-team builder with Thomas Dimitroff. We have a unique situation each and every year.”

Notes: Six players who spent time on the team's practice squad have been signed to reserve/future contracts: WR Drew Davis, TE Tommy Gallarda, S Matt Hansen, OL Kyle Jolly, S Suaesi Tuimaunei and TE Ryan Winterswyk. ... Snelling suffered a broken jaw in the loss to the Giants. ... Lofton, Abraham, McClure, Weems and QB Matt Ryan were voted team captains by the players.