FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Atlanta Falcons started their youth movement Friday by ditching three key players from the most successful era in franchise history.
The Falcons released running back Michael Turner, defensive end John Abraham and cornerback Dunta Robinson, moves that were not unexpected given their age (all in their 30s) and hefty salaries.
Still, it was a stunning start to Atlanta's offseason makeover, especially for a team that came up just short of the Super Bowl, losing to San Francisco in a thrilling NFC championship game. In one swoop, the Falcons let go their top rusher, their leader in sacks, and a starter in the secondary.
"These are never easy decisions to make," general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. "A lot of thought goes into these type of decisions."
The moves free up about $16 million in salary cap space, money that Dimitroff intends to use to build a younger roster. Last year, the Falcons were one of the oldest teams in the league.
"They were business decisions," he said. "They were decisions made for us to continue to look at the direction of this football team. We have a number of positions that we need to hone in on, whether if it's in the draft or potentially acquiring (players) in free agency. That's all that I can really say at this point, because there are a lot of moving parts."
Dimitroff said the moves had "very little" to do with whether Tony Gonzalez might return in 2013. The tight end indicated all last season that he was likely to retire, but has not made a final decision. He said it would likely be well into the offseason before he makes anything official.
The 31-year-old Turner was the first big free-agent signing under the Dimitroff-Smith regime in 2008. The bruising back rushed for 1,699 yards his first season and more than 1,300 yards two other years. But his playing time dipped dramatically in 2012 as the Falcons gave more carries to a totally different kind of back, Jacquizz Rodgers, who provided more speed and quickness.
Turner rushed for 800 yards this past season, the lowest of his five-year Atlanta stint, with 10 touchdowns. He averaged a career-low 3.6 yards per carry.
Abraham has been the Falcons' only consistent pass rusher since being acquired from the New York Jets in 2006. At age 34, he led the team with 10 sacks but had to cut back on his snaps in a bid to stay healthy. He wasn't much of a factor in the playoffs after injuring his left ankle in the final regular-season game.
Over his Falcons career, Abraham had 68 1-2 sacks. His departure means defensive end will be one of Dimitroff's top priorities in the free agency.
The 30-year-old Robinson signed with Atlanta in 2010 and became a steady figure in the secondary, known especially for his bruising hits. He had four interceptions over the past three seasons.
The Falcons were an NFC-leading 13-3 last year, their fifth straight winning season. Since 2008, they have made the playoffs four times and won two division titles.
"It is never easy to cut any player, especially veteran players who have been valuable members of the organization," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "The guys we released today have contributed to the success that we have had over the last five years, and we greatly appreciate their efforts."
While Dimitroff will surely be looking at free agents such as St. Louis running back Steven Jackson, who could opt out of his deal, the first priority is re-signing some of the team's own free agents, such as safety William Moore and offensive tackle Sam Baker. Also, the Falcons have to make plans to fit in a long-term extension for quarterback Matt Ryan.
"Our focus has always been to make sure that we hone in on our players that are currently on our team in our attempt to re-sign our football players," Dimitroff said. "That's going to be our focus, first and foremost."