Yes, they want to lock up franchise quarterback Matt Ryan to a new long-term deal. But the more pressing need may be getting tight end Tony Gonzalez to delay his retirement plans for another season.
“I’ve spoken with Tony, and I hope you guys understand that when I talk to my players, I try to keep those conversations private,” coach Mike Smith said Friday at the NFL’s annual scouting combine. “I’ll talk with him again, and the time frame on that is sooner than later. We know that Tony had an outstanding year for us.”
Atlanta (13-3) finished with the NFC’s best record and fell just short of reaching its second Super Bowl, a loss that many thought would be the last of Gonzalez’s career.
While he hasn’t officially announced his retirement, Gonzalez said repeatedly that he was 95-percent certain the 2012 season would be his last in the NFL.
If Gonzalez doesn’t return, Smith made it clear the Falcons would be looking for a replacement that looks a lot like Gonzalez, the career leader for receptions among tight ends. Of course, the best solution might be not finding a replacement at all.
“I think the skill set that Tony Gonzalez has is basically the standard that most teams are looking for when they are talking about a tight end,” Smith said. “He was really the first one, the more athletic tight end that could extend from the formation, line up outside, line up in different places. We would be looking for that type of tight end.”
Gonzalez’s future is only part of the equation in Atlanta.
Ryan has led the Falcons to the playoffs four times but has only one postseason win, and his contract is set to expire after next season. Apparently, Atlanta is ready to start talking.
“Obviously, it’s a priority for us when the time is right, and we’re not too anxious about it because we’re confident that it’s going to get done,” general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “Our feeling is that Matt’s going to be with us for many years to come and he’s going to be our franchise guy that we’re all very proud off, again, on and off the field. Matt’s what we’re looking for in a quarterback.”
The Falcons are just one of many teams at the combine being peppered with questions about contracts.
The Dallas Cowboys and Cincinnati Bengals are in the club, too.
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett lined up unequivocally behind his starting quarterback Tony Romo, though he acknowledged Dallas probably needs to restructure Romo’s deal to fill out the roster.
“We believe very strongly in Tony Romo as our quarterback, so we want to get that business done to help our football team be as good as it can be,” Garrett said. “I do believe we have to address some things with personnel, and freeing up some of that money will allow us to do that.”
The Bengals aren’t in salary cap crunch. Heading into free agency, they are expected to have more than $50 million to spend.
But they do have a lot of expiring contracts and many young players who will be due raises in the next couple of years, so they’ll spend the next couple of weeks doing what they can to keep their team together.
“I don’t have any confirmation yet that we have signed anyone,” coach Marvin Lewis said. “We’re working hard on it and there are some meetings and positive things that have to continue to come. We have a number of guys who we have to get re-signed and we will work very hard at getting that done.”