ATLANTA -- With an NFL deadline approaching, the Atlanta Falcons face decisions on Pro Bowl linebacker Keith Brooking and several other key veterans.
Brooking remains a top priority for the Falcons, who want to re-sign the former Georgia Tech star, their 1998 first-round draft pick, before 4 p.m. Thursday.
"I'm hopeful it will get done, but you're never sure until they start signing documents," Falcons coach Dan Reeves said. "We want him back, sure, and everything I've heard from Keith makes me think he wants to be here."
To keep Brooking from becoming an unrestricted free agent, the team would be forced to use a "franchise" tag, which would guarantee Brooking a $5.6 million salary - the average of the five highest-paid linebackers in the league.
But that means the Falcons would have less money to sign restricted free agents like backup quarterback Doug Johnson, linebacker Mark Simoneau and receivers Brian Finneran and Trevor Gaylor.
Thursday also marks the first day teams are allowed to cut veteran players to get under the $74.8 salary cap, but the Falcons likely will wait to make such moves.
Atlanta currently is $5.8 million under the 2003 cap, so the team will avoid the problems it had last year.
On Feb. 25, the Falcons were about $9 million over the 2002 cap, which stood at $71.7 million. So they released quarterback Chris Chandler, receiver Terance Mathis and safety Ronnie Bradford.
By the start of the season, left tackle Bob Whitfield, fullback Bob Christian, receiver Shawn Jefferson, and defensive linemen Travis Hall and Shane Dronett all agreed to either restructure their contracts or take pay cuts.
That made it possible to sign running back Warrick Dunn and right tackle Todd Weiner to long-term deals in March. The team hopes to be back in the market this year for an impact receiver, pass rusher and defensive back.
Dronett, Jefferson, Christian and cornerback Ashley Ambrose might see their contracts cut or restructured again this year because they are worth $16.2 million against the 2003 salary cap.
Hall also could have his contract restructured since his base salary is $3.1 million and injuries forced him to become a backup.