FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Atlanta Falcons released four-time Pro Bowl tight end Alge Crumpler and six other players Friday in the first step of a major rebuilding job in the post-Michael Vick era.
The Falcons also cut quarterback Byron Leftwich, defensive tackle Rod Coleman, offensive tackle Wayne Gandy, cornerback Lewis Sanders, wide receiver Jamin Elliott and linebacker Marcus Wilkins.
"This is a difficult day for the entire organization," said Thomas Dimitroff, the Falcons' new general manager. "A number of these players have contributed to this organization on and off the field at a high level, and we greatly appreciate their efforts."
None contributed more than Crumpler, one of the team's most respected players and a leader in the locker room. He twice led the Falcons in receptions and had a streak of four straight Pro Bowl appearances from 2003-06.
But Crumpler was plagued by knee problems this past season and dropped off to 44 receptions. Also, he counted $5.1 million against the salary cap for 2008, money the Falcons felt could be better spent elsewhere.
"These decisions weren't easy, but we felt they were necessary to build a team in the long-term best interest of the Falcons and its fans," Dimitroff said.
The Falcons also cut Coleman, who played sparingly in 2007 after injuring himself on a personal watercraft during the last offseason. Before that, he had been one of the NFL's most dominating interior linemen, making the Pro Bowl in 2005.
"As a football coach it is never easy to cut any player, especially veteran players who have been valuable members of the organization," said new coach Mike Smith, who was hired last month.
Leftwich was another player slowed by injuries. Cut by Jacksonville late in training camp, he signed with the Falcons after missing the first two weeks of the regular season. He was soon anointed the starter by then-coach Bobby Petrino, but played in only three games because of a perennially ailing ankle and other problems.
The 37-year-old Gandy started all 16 games for the Falcons in 2006, but made it through only five weeks last season before going down with a knee injury, the first major health issue of his career.
Sanders started six games in his only season with the Falcons, but was supplanted by rookie Chris Houston. Wilkins and Elliott were used sparingly.
The Falcons are retooling their roster after going 4-12 in 2007, a tumultuous season marred by the loss of Vick. The team's most prominent player pleaded guilty to federal dogfighting charges and received a prison sentence of nearly two years.
Petrino bolted for Arkansas with three games left in his debut season, and owner Arthur Blank further shook things up by taking away the GM duties from Rich McKay, who remains as team president.
The loss of Vick had severe implications on Atlanta's salary cap, especially when a federal judge ruled this month the team couldn't recover $16.5 million in bonuses. The NFL is appealing that decision.
From all indications, the shake-up isn't done. Veterans such as Warrick Dunn and Lawyer Milloy could become victims of the cap, though they weren't included in the original round of cuts.
Dimitroff wants to provide flexibility in the free-agent market, which begins Feb. 29.
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press