ATLANTA - The veteran roster purge of 2014 is underway.
The Atlanta Falcons released former starters in cornerback Asante Samuel and linebacker Stephen Nicholas, creating an additional $6.5 million in salary cap space, on Wednesday.
Samuel, 32, and Nicholas, 30, were expendable because of the solid play of younger, and cheaper players, at their respective positions.
Samuel had a salary-cap number of $5.2 million for 2014 and his release will save the Falcons $4.5 million. Nicholas had a $4 million cap-number and his departure saves the team $2 million.
The Falcons drafted cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford in the first- and second- rounds last season. Both played well, with Trufant being named to the Pro Football Writers of America’s all-rookie team.
Alford took over at left cornerback down the stretch and is set to make a base salary of $559,609 next season.
Nicholas, a starter from 2009 to 2012, was yanked out of the starting lineup last season. However, he did start four games because of injuries, but was listed behind undrafted rookies Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow on the depth chart.
Bartu and Worrilow are both set to make base salaries of $495,000 in 2014.
Falcons general manager Thomas Dimtroff recently said that the team was ready to start making moves as soon as the rosters were unfrozen Monday by the league office. He was in draft planning meetings and was not available to comment about these moves.
Last season, the Falcons cut several veterans, including defensive end John Abraham, cornerback Dunta Robinson, running back Michael Turner and right tackle Tyson Clabo.
The moves signals that the front office and the coaches are comfortable with Alford, Bartu and Worrilow as starters. Alford played 585 snaps, while Bartu played 789 and Worrilow played 790, according to profootballfocus.com.
Worrilow led the Falcons with 137 tackles, according to the coaches’ film review stats. Bartu finished third with 96 tackles.
Samuel’s play dropped significantly in his second season with the Falcons. In 2012, he started 15 games and had five interceptions and 18 pass breakups. Last season, he started 10 of 11 games, had one interception and three pass breakups.
Samuel, a four-time Pro Bowler, was selected by the New England Patriots in the fourth-round (120th overall) of the 2003 NFL draft. After a five-year stint with the Patriots, he played four seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles (2008-2011) before being traded to Falcons in April of 2012 for a seventh-round draft pick.
Nicholas played in 101 games with 51 starts in seven seasons.
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.