FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – It happens with every NFL franchise, and it happened with the New York Giants and Osi Umenyiora.
The NFL’s hard salary cap and the fleeting nature of careers mean that teams are constantly drafting and developing talent to replace their higher-priced veterans – even if those veterans are Pro-Bowlers who have helped your team to win the Super Bowl multiple times.
A few years ago it happened with the Falcons and veteran safety Erik Coleman. Coleman arrived in 2008 with the advent of the Thomas Dimitroff-Mike Smith Era and started 33 straight games, and helped to tutor Thomas DeCoud, a 2008 third-round pick, and William Moore, a 2009 second-round pick. Coleman sprained his knee in the 2010 season opener and Moore started the remaining 15 games of the season. By the end of season, Coleman was out of a job with the Falcons and last season DeCoud and Moore each had flourished into Pro-Bowlers.
While Umenyiora’s tenure in New York reached greater heights than Coleman’s with the Falcons and didn’t quite plumb the same lows, he plowed a similar track.
Gradually, over time, the Giants replaced Umenyiora, a second-round pick in 2003, with younger players. In 2005, they selected Justin Tuck in the third round in 2005. Five years later, the Giants drafted Jason Pierre-Paul 15th overall. By last season, Pierre-Paul had become an elite player and started 15 games while Umenyiora was playing fewer snaps than both Pierre-Paul and Tuck.
Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said he and his position coaches always assist in free-agent evaluations for the staff of Dimitroff, the general manager. They write reports on players and take part in meetings with Smith, Dimitroff and owner Arthur Blank to discuss options.
“I think his role kind of changed as a Giant,” Nolan said of Umenyiora. “They have some players that they drafted, put a lot of stock into that, I think was part of the reason for (diminished playing time). I think it was more what’s around him than himself, I believe.
“Seems like this sometimes: You can have a little bit of a rebirth. You’ve seen that all the time where a good player, people say, ‘Oh, he doesn’t have anything left,’ and he goes someplace, next thing you know he plays well for the new team. Whatever it is, they get re-energized. He’s been a Giant for a long time. … It’s like I said, you can tell he’s a good player.”
Having cut the older John Abraham, the Falcons are counting on Umenyiora, 31, to help deliver the pressure on the quarterback the team needs to be a Super Bowl contender. In 2010, Umenyiora tied an NFL record with 10 forced fumbles (Abraham posted six last season). He owns 75 career sacks and three times he has reached double digits in that category – but not since ’10.
Even in 2011, he played only nine games but totaled nine sacks.
The Falcons need him to return to that form and he knows it.
“These guys didn’t bring me in here off what I did last year or for what I did for the New York Giants,” he said on Wednesday in his first session with the media since offseason team activities began on Tuesday. “They brought me here for what I can do for them. So, for me, I have to start all over again. I have to show them exactly what it is that I’m capable of.
“Nobody cares what I did for the New York Giants. So what can I do for the Atlanta Falcons? They expect big things from me. I expect even bigger things from myself and I think everything’s going to be good out here.”
That’s a refreshing attitude, which lies in contrast with that of the last time the Falcons ventured into the free agent market for a defensive end. In ’11, they landed Ray Edwards, formerly of Minnesota. Edwards was cut midway through last season because of poor production combined with a poor attitude.
That is not at all the case with Umenyiora, who has demonstrated his enthusiasm since signing with the Falcons. In part, it’s because he makes the city his offseason home. After emigrating from London as a child with his family, he lived in Auburn, Ala., and played in college at Troy.
Members of the coaching staff have said that Umenyiora has acted as a positive influence off the field.
“Osi’s, from the very beginning, he’s taken some of the young guys under his wing,” Smith said. “Not only defensive linemen but some other positions, as well. He’s one of the first guys in the building in terms of his workout and he’s taken some of those young guys with him and I think that’s very important. He’s easy-going off the field but he plays with a lot of energy.”
Added Nolan: “From an impact standpoint, those little things are appreciated.”
For his part, Umenyiora said that is his way of trying to lead by example. He said he does not feel comfortable becoming part of an established team and trying to assert his presence in a vocal manner.
“You can’t do that,” he said. “They have veteran guys on this team and the coaching staff is a veteran coaching staff.”
Needless to say, Asante Samuel didn’t feel that way when he joined the Falcons last season but Samuel’s vocal antics were largely seen as a positive on a unit with a slightly bland identity. However, like Samuel, who needed a change from his time in Philadelphia, the move does seem to be doing Umenyiora some good.
When asked how it felt to put on a new uniform, Umenyiora smiled.
“It feels good,” he said. “My time in New York was awesome but I’m so happy to be here. It’s a new chapter of my life. I’m happy to be on this winning franchise. I want to do everything I can to help this franchise win.”
Having said that, Umenyiora was in no mood for bold predictions, even with the Falcons coming off an NFC Championship Game appearance last season. Perhaps winning the league’s top prize twice and experiencing some personal highs and lows along the way have taught him something about the vagaries of life in the NFL.
“It’s like you said, it’s entirely too early to tell,” he said to a questioner. “This team has been a good team. I anticipate this team will continue to be good. As far as us being better than we were last year, we’ll see how that plays out.”