Hartwell is fourth defensive free agent inked by Atlanta

Standout inside linebacker Ed Hartwell, arguably the premier player remaining in the unrestricted free agent pool, has reached a contract agreement with the Atlanta Falcons, ESPN.com has learned.

The deal, which came after days of intense negotiations, fits nicely with Atlanta's often-stated offseason priority of further upgrading a defense that statistically ranked 14th in the NFL in 2004. A four-year veteran who had played his entire career with the Baltimore Ravens, Hartwell is the fourth defensive free agent signed by the Falcons, joining safeties Rich Coady and Ronnie Heard and linebacker Ike Reese.

Certainly the aggressive Hartwell is the Falcons' highest-profile offseason addition and, by far, the highest paid. Despite its need to upgrade at linebacker and safety, and to add more speed to both positions, Atlanta had spent modestly in the opening three weeks of the free agent period.

Hartwell's six-year contract totals $26.25 million and includes an $8 million signing bonus. There are additional base salary guarantees in the first three seasons of the contract. The deal will pay Hartwell $10 million in its first two years and $13.25 million over the first three seasons.

In the end, Hartwell chose the Falcons over the Kansas City Chiefs. Seattle had been in the chase for him as well but, over the past few days, dropped out of the bidding. Agent Harold Lewis negotiated extensively with officials from Atlanta and Kansas City over the weekend and the deal came together when the Falcons raised their offer from $4 million per year, a number on which they had been stuck for days.

A number of Atlanta officials -- including owner Arthur Blank and head coach Jim Mora and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell -- lobbied Hartwell hard the past few days.

"They made me feel wanted and I just think it's a great organization, a great city, and a great chance to win a Super Bowl," Hartwell said on Monday. "There are a lot of really good players there already and I hope I can add that something special, having come from a winning program, that helps get them over the hump. The more they called, the more it all came together and, on Sunday, I told my agent, 'Get a deal done with them. It's where I want to be.' And he took care of business."

Hartwell, 26, has started at inside linebacker in Baltimore's 3-4 front the past three years, but considers himself a pure 4-3 middle 'backer. His addition means that the Falcons will likely have two new starters in 2005. Keith Brooking, a perennial Pro Bowl performer, will likely remain on the weak side. Second-year pro Demorrio Williams, mostly used as a "nickel" linebacker in 2004, is projected as the strongside starter. Hartwell will bump Chris Draft from the middle spot.

The result should be a much quicker and significantly deeper unit, which is exactly what Mora and Donatell were seeking going into the offseason.

In four seasons, Hartwell posted 335 tackles, six sacks, one interception and four forced fumbles. He averaged 111.7 tackles in his three years as a starter, including a career-best 144 stops in 2002. That season, with Ray Lewis injured for much of the year, Hartwell took over as the Ravens' primary inside force against the run. His performance that year signaled that he was an emerging player who, in time, might be able to move out of Lewis' considerable shadow and make his own reputation as a top-shelf run defender.

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