NFL Nation: exclusive-rights free agents

Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff hasn’t had a lot of salary-cap room to work with this offseason, but that hasn’t stopped him from using creative ways to maximize every penny.

While recently re-signing veteran center Todd McClure and veteran long-snapper Joe Zelenka, Dimitroff took advantage of the veteran minimum salary benefit. That’s a rule that basically was put in so that veterans aren’t priced out of the league. Zelenka’s a 12-year veteran and McClure has been in the NFL for 13 seasons. At that level of experience, the minimum salary is $925,000.

That’s the salary Zelenka and McClure will receive this season, but the benefit allows their base salary to count only $540,000 against the salary cap. McClure got a $65,000 signing bonus, so his cap figure is $605,000, even though the total cash value of his one-year contract is $990,000. Zelenka didn’t get a signing bonus so his cap figure is $540,000.

The Falcons currently have $1.66 million in cap space.

Dimitroff isn’t the only NFC South general manager taking advantage of the benefit. The Carolina Panthers' Marty Hurney used it when he recently re-signed defensive end Antwan Applewhite. As a four-year veteran, Applewhite’s minimum salary is $700,000. That’s what he’ll get, but only $540,000 of his base salary counts toward the cap. Applewhite also has a $65,000 workout bonus, which bring his cap figure up to $605,000.

In other contract and cap news, Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Preston Parker has signed his exclusive-free-agent tender. He’s scheduled to make $540,000 this year. Running back LeGarrette Blount also is an exclusive-rights free agent, but has yet to sign his tender.
The Atlanta Falcons quietly continue to move through the process of getting ready for the start of free agency.

After placing the franchise tag on cornerback Brent Grimes, the Falcons are now dealing with some other players that were not under contract for 2012.

The team announced Tuesday morning that tight end Michael Palmer and running back Antone Smith have signed their exclusive-rights tenders.

Palmer, who joined the Falcons in 2010, isn’t known as a pass-catcher, and that’s not needed because Atlanta has Tony Gonzalez in that role. But Palmer has played an important role in the offense as a blocker.

Smith has spent the past two seasons with the Falcons, playing primarily on special teams. But he also has some ability as a running back, and he could get a chance to show more of that moving forward. The Falcons have made it clear they want to lighten the load of feature back Michael Turner.

They have Jacquizz Rodgers, who is likely to get more use as a speed back in his second season. But Smith could compete with Jason Snelling as part of the rotation.