FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Defensive end Osi Umenyiora was one of the Falcons major free-agent signings last year but entering the 2014 season his role remains uncertain.
With the Falcons continuing to explore 3-4 concepts last year, they taught Umenyiora to play standing up — something he had never done before. As the year wore on, the coaching staff moved the 32-year-old into more of a "designated pass rusher," or DPR, role. The two-time Super Bowl winner finished with 7.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and an interception. They were decent numbers but on a bad defense — and especially considering that the player whom the Falcons cut before signing Umenyiora, John Abraham, made the Pro Bowl with Arizona with 11.5 sacks — it left an air of uncertainty about Umenyiora’s role moving forward.
That uncertainty continues during OTAs (organized team activities). Umenyiora was asked on Wednesday what potentially being a DPR meant to him and what he thought his role would be.
"I don’t know," he said. "I don’t know what exactly what my role is going to be. I think it will be determined as the weeks go on."
Asked if he was OK with being a DPR, he responded, "I’m employee No. 50 for the Atlanta Falcons. Whatever they ask me to do is what I’m going to do. If that’s what they want me to do, I’m going to do it to the best of my ability."
So far it seems that Umenyiora could be the odd man out in terms of a starting role — that trend that began last season when he started the first 13 games but not the last three. In the Falcons’ 3-4 sets, Jonathan Babineaux is taking the most reps with the first team at the right end, with Jonathan Massaquoi at right outside linebacker, Umenyiora’s old spot. In other fronts, whether it’s the 3-3 or 4-3, the 300-pound Babineaux appears to be holding down that right end spot as the Falcons are determined to do a better job defending the run.
"We have to put that behind us," Umenyiora said of last season. "That’s life. I think we came in with a lot of expectations. Obviously, we didn’t meet those. This is a brand new year. Thirty-one teams went home disappointed last year and we were one of them. Hopefully, this will be a different year."
Wednesday represented the first day in Atlanta that new defensive line coach Bryan Cox spoke to the media. The former three-time Pro-Bowl NFL linebacker is no less colorful as a coach than he was as a player. He held court for quite some time.
Cox discussed the topic of "playing on the edge."
"My definition is you play within the rules but you also have to be your own referee," he said, "so if someone’s out there doing something dirty to you instead of going and crying to the referee, you take care of it. You handle it as a man. That’s what being on the edge is to me."
Cox admitted that sometimes he crossed the line when playing on the edge.
"Sometimes I went over the edge," he said. " … I didn’t know where the edge was sometimes."
The Falcons’ need to get tougher on the defensive line has been an oft-discussed subject. That is part of Cox’s mission.
Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, who has worked with Cox both when Cox was a player with the New York Jets and when Cox was an assistant with Miami, said Cox’s ability to communicate with players is key.
"He doesn’t sugarcoat anything at all and in the end I think the players really appreciate it," Nolan said, "because in some situations they (position coaches) don’t shoot them straight on things."
End Tyson Jackson, tackle Paul Soliai, rookie defensive lineman Ra’ Shede Hageman and free safety Dwight Lowery all are among the key players on defense who could win starting jobs and who also are new.
Asked what challenges those players face right now, Nolan said it was learning the Falcons’ terminology.
"That’s the No. 1 challenge," he said. "It always is because they know how to play the game or they wouldn’t really be here. But it’s that ‘OK, this means I do this’ andâ¦ we try to keep our language (so) at least it’s meaningful, as opposed to ‘We call this the Michael Singletary Blitz.’ Some of these young guys are probably like, ‘Who in the heck is that guy?’ They don’t even know so we try to keep things categorized in little boxes that say when we’re blitzing here’s the words. When I’m blitzing these are the words so everyone’s got specific details so it perks them up when they know it’s their turn.
"ut I would say language is the biggest barrier for those guys."