Carpenter missed '04 with knee injury

ATLANTA -- Unrestricted free agent safety Keion Carpenter, who missed the entire 2004 season with a knee injury, has reached agreement to return to the Atlanta Falcons in 2005.

Carpenter agreed to a one-year contract that features a base salary of $540,000. The deal will be signed next week.

While the retention of Carpenter might not seem like a high-profile move for the Falcons, the defense clearly missed his playmaking skills in the middle of the secondary last year, and he remains Atlanta's best ball-hawking safety. Although not particularly fast, Carpenter is a very aware player, and certainly an opportunist.

In the two seasons with the Falcons in which he was healthy, Carpenter started 26 games (including playoffs) and created 12 takeaways: nine interceptions, two forced fumbles and a recovery. Even though Carpenter started just eight times in 2003, he posted three interceptions and had seven passes defensed. The team's starters in '04, free safety Cory Hall and strong safety Bryan Scott, had just two interceptions and three pass deflections between them.

Hall was released last month and the Atlanta coaches have vowed to improve the overall speed and playmaking skills at safety. Toward that end, the Falcons have signed two unrestricted free agents from other teams, Rich Coady (St. Louis) and Ronnie Heard (San Francisco), but neither has the range or instincts that Carpenter possesses.

Carpenter, 27, tore the anterior cruciate ligament of his right knee last June during a non-contact drill. He underwent surgery a few days later and then was placed on the injured reserve list for the season. Carpenter is in the final stages of rehabilitation and ready to participate in the club's offseason program.

The six-year veteran remained a presence with team, serving as a de facto coach to the younger safeties, and attending meetings and practices every day. Despite not being in uniform, Carpenter was on the sideline every game, and his leadership was often cited as one component of the team's success.

In the first month of the unrestricted market, Carpenter generated only modest interest, but that was due in part to his public stance that he wanted to re-sign with the Falcons. His pending return, in fact, was a poorly kept secret.

The former Virginia Tech standout entered the league with the Buffalo Bills in 1999 as an undrafted college free agent. After three seasons in Buffalo, he signed with Atlanta on the recommendation of then-defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who had been his head coach with the Bills.

He has 200 tackles, 12 interceptions, 21 passes defensed, three forced fumbles and one recovery in 68 appearances, including 46 starts.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.