ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons cleared an opening for rookie fullback Bradie Ewing on Tuesday when they released veteran Ovie Mughelli in a move that also frees salary cap space.
The move was not a surprise after the Falcons traded for cornerback Asante Samuel before last month's draft and selected Ewing, a former Richland Center athlete, in the fifth round out of the University of Wisconsin. The Falcons needed to cut payroll, and Mughelli was an obvious target.
Mughelli, 31, was due to earn a base salary of $3 million in 2012. His 2011 season ended when he hurt his right knee in Week 7 at Detroit and was placed on injured reserve. Mughelli's 32nd birthday is June 10, nine days before the team's first minicamp for veterans.
The Falcons gave Mughelli a six-year, $18 million contract in 2007. He made 38 starts in 69 games with Atlanta.
Mughelli said Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith left open the possibility that he might have a chance to re-sign with the team at a reduced salary.
"Thomas and the coach said that's a possibility in the future," Mughelli said. "We spoke this morning. They said in the coming days they're going to talk to my agent."
Mughelli said he was cleared by his doctors in time for one offseason workout with quarterback Matt Ryan and the Falcons on Monday.
"It was great to get back on the field if only for one day on Monday," Mughelli said. "I got to catch passes from Matt. For the first time in almost six or seven months I could really run on it, stopping and cutting and all that. It felt good."
He said he wasn't told if his release was strictly a financial move or if the team had any concern about his recovery.
"I tried to wedge it out of Thomas and coach to give me a specific reason," Mughelli said. "They said myriad of reasons. I'm not here to decide what's wrong, what's right in the business. You don't get to be a 10-year vet without seeing a lot of business decisions like this."
Mughelli, a powerful blocker who had few opportunities to run or catch the ball in his five seasons with Atlanta, made the Pro Bowl in 2010. He was a fourth-round pick by Baltimore in 2003 and played four seasons with the Ravens and five with Atlanta.
The Falcons' decision to release Mughelli will place more attention on Ewing (5-11, 243), who will participate in a rookie minicamp that begins Friday. Also returning is veteran fullback Mike Cox, who was signed after Mughelli's knee injury last season, and Jason Snelling, who can play running back and fullback.
Ewing called himself "a very versatile player."
"I think, obviously, I can do all the things the traditional fullback can do, as far as blocking from the backfield and all that stuff," Ewing said after he was selected by the Falcons. "But I think I have phenomenal hands. I can catch out of the backfield, I can be split out and I can play special teams."
The trade for Samuel, a four-time Pro Bowl pick, left the Falcons with a more urgent need to reduce payroll. The Falcons only gave up a seventh-round draft choice to the Eagles for Samuel, but the team's payroll rose even after he agreed to restructure his contract to a three-year, $18.5 million deal. His contract with Philadelphia called for him to earn $9.9 million in 2012 and $11.4 million in 2013.
The fullback position may carry less emphasis under new Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. The Falcons have pushed a run-first philosophy under Smith, but fifth-year quarterback Matt Ryan's passing numbers have risen with his experience. Ryan set career highs with 4,177 yards passing and 29 touchdowns last season.