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Falcons gear up for shift to 3-4 defense

Defensive front seven personnel was a top priority entering free agency Tuesday, but the angle taken to upgrade by the Atlanta Falcons was a bit of a surprise.

In the opening hour of the free agent signing period, defensive linemen Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai agreed to terms with the Falcons on multi-year contracts. The initial implication is the Falcons didn’t just add great size — Atlanta added experienced, productive foundation pieces for a shift to a 3-4 defense.

While general manager Thomas Dimitroff indicated this week the Falcons would be “more multiple” adding the wide-bodied Soliai with a $14.5 million guarantee as part of a five-year, $33 million contract and Jackson, a two-gap defender drafted by assistant general manager Scott Pioli as the third overall pick out of LSU. He signed a five-year, $25 million deal.

The moves were part of a flurry of activity to kick off free agency. Offensive guard Jon Asamoah, another former Pioli draft pick, agreed to terms Tuesday.

“We were focused on adding pieces along our offensive and defensive lines and I feel we were able to accomplish that today,” Dimitroff said Tuesday. “We believe that Paul and Tyson will add stoutness and grittiness to our defensive front and will help in the run game. Jon is a solid offensive lineman that has started 41 games during his four-year career that will bring some ruggedness to our offensive front.”

Atlanta kept defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux with a three-year deal worth $9 million and $4 million guaranteed in 2014 and retained offensive lineman Joe Hawley on a two-year contract extension. Financial terms were not disclosed.

Babineaux (6-foot-2, 300 pounds) was selected by the Falcons in the second round of the 2005 NFL Draft out of Iowa. He has played in 138 career games with 108 starts including all 16 games in each of the last two seasons.

Safety Thomas DeCoud, who started all but two games in the past five seasons, was officially released. He was a Pro Bowl alternate in 2012 after signing a five-year, $17.5 million deal. He joins a pile of veteran contributors on the unemployment line including cornerback Asante Samuel and Stephen Nicholas.

In nine seasons with the Falcons, Babineaux, 32, has totaled 370 tackles (263 solo), 23.5 sacks, three interceptions, 20 passes defensed, 10 fumble recoveries and nine forced fumbles. He recorded 49 tackles (37 solo) with one sack, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble in 2013.

Hawley was a fourth-round pick in 2010, and has played in 53 career games, with all seven starts coming at center last season.

The Falcons also announced they have released tight end Tony Gonzalez, the future Hall of Famer who has announced he intends to retire.

“We would like to begin by thanking Tony for his contributions to our organization, community and fan base over the last five seasons,” Dimitroff said. “There is no doubt that he is the best tight end to ever play the game and will have a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Tony was the consummate professional that led by example. He was one of the hardest working players I have ever been around and has left a lasting impact on this team.”

“This was a decision we had to make with the start of the new League year as we begin retooling our roster for 2014. On behalf of the entire Falcons organization, we wish Tony all the best in his television career and thank him for everything he did for this franchise.”

Gonzalez, who spent his first 12 NFL seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, caught 409 passes for 4,187 yards and 35 touchdowns over the past five seasons with the Falcons.