ATLANTA (Feb. 24, 2007) -- Atlanta Falcons defensive end Patrick Kerney voided his contract, and potentially lucrative free-agent options could make it difficult for the team to re-sign their top pass rusher.
Kerney opted out of the final two years of his contract to explore his options as an unrestricted free agent, the team confirmed.
Even though he is coming off an injury, Kerney may top the field of free-agent defensive ends. Three other top defensive ends -- Dwight Freeney of Indianapolis, Cincinnati's Justin Smith and New Orleans' Charles Grant -- have been designated by their teams as franchise players.
The Falcons don't have the option of placing a franchise tag on Kerney because he does not have an expiring contract.
It may be difficult for the Falcons to make a competitive bid for Kerney. The team is only about $10 million under the salary cap and with new coach Bobby Petrino seeking to add balance to a run-oriented offense, offensive line and wide receiver may be priorities.
Kerney, 30, made 105 consecutive starts before he suffered a torn right pectoral muscle in the ninth game last season. He was leading the team with 4 1/2 sacks at the time of the injury.
Kerney ranks third on the Falcons' career list with 58 sacks. The injury may have reminded Kerney, a 1999 first-round pick, that this may be his last chance for a big contract.
"I've only got about five more years to play, and I've got to make the most out of it," Kerney told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "As great as it would have been to finish my career with Atlanta, where everybody, especially the fans, have been great to me in my eight years there, the business side is there."
Kerney, a first-round pick in 1999, earned a Pro Bowl selection in 2004 after setting a career high with 13 sacks. He had 12 sacks in his 2001 breakout season.
There were early concerns that Kerney (6-5, 273) would be too light to be an effective run-stopper, but he bulked up during his career and even started at end in a 3-4 scheme.
After Kerney's injury last season, 2004 fourth-round pick Chauncey Davis started at left end.
The Falcons spent big money -- and a first-round draft pick -- on the defensive end position when they acquired John Abraham before last season. The team sent the No. 15 overall pick in last year's draft to Denver in a three-team trade after agreeing to a six-year deal with Abraham.
Injuries limited Abraham to only eight games last season.
The Falcons also could lose fullbacks Justin Griffith and Fred McCrary, kicker Morten Andersen and receiver Ashley Lelie as unrestricted free agents.
Backup quarterback Matt Schaub is a key restricted free agent. Linebacker Demorrio Williams also is a restricted free agent.