Umenyiora primed to help Falcons’ title chase

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Osi Umenyiora was 13 when he emigrated from London to Auburn, Ala.

His first sport was the European version of football. The nimble 6-foot-3, 255-pounder still likes to dabble in the game, and it has helped his footwork as a premier pass-rusher in the American version of the sport that shares the same name.

Umenyiora only played two years of high school football, and so the big Southeastern Conference powerhouse in his hometown did not recruit him. No one did, he said. Instead, he was forced to go 75 miles away to play at Troy State (now Troy).

For 14 years, Umenyiora’s parents have lived 90 miles away from Auburn in metro Atlanta, as does his 5-year-old son. Umenyiora has called Atlanta home for 10 years; and so when he officially signed with the Falcons on Thursday, he called it a dream — never allowing himself to imagine this would become real, as it seemed too good to be true.

In joining the Falcons — the top seed in the NFC playoffs in 2010 and ’12, and a team that fell just short of a Super Bowl berth a few months ago — Umenyiora said he is joining the most talented team he has ever been on. That’s a big statement for a player who won two Super Bowl trophies as a member of the New York Giants. When questioned about it later, Umenyiora stood behind his words.

“Talent is just on paper,” he said. “Plenty of talented teams get punched in the mouth … The difference is all mentality. It’s all the players — how well they play together, how well they come together as a team and that’s going to determine whether we’re going to be good or not.”

Indeed, with free-agent signings like Umenyiora and running back Steven Jackson on top of retaining All-Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez, Pro-Bowl safety William Moore and starting left tackle Sam Baker, the expectations will be through the roof.

After cutting John Abraham on March 1, the Falcons finally landed his replacement in the form of Umenyiora. According to the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, the two-year deal will cost the Falcons $12.2 million, with $5 million guaranteed in 2013.

In Umenyiora, the Falcons get a player who is 3 1/2 younger than Abraham, at 31. They also have one whose production has slipped in recent seasons, going from 11.5 sacks in 2010 to nine in ’11 to six last season (Abraham had 10).

From 2010-12, Abraham totaled 32.5 sacks in 46 games, or 0.7 per game. Over the same time period, Umenyiora has totaled 26.5 in 41 games, a slightly lower rate at 0.65, but the fact that Abraham stayed markedly healthier is significant. Umenyiora missed seven games in 2011 — a year the Giants won the Super Bowl — but narrowly qualified for the postseason, which could have been attributed, part, to Umenyiora’s absence.

Given the Falcons’ lack of premium pass-rushing depth, like the Giants, Umenyiora won’t have to worry about part-time reps in Atlanta. In New York, he dropped on the depth chart behind Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck. On Thursday, Umenyiora said that was one of the reasons why his production decreased.

“Well, obviously they had some very good football players there with Jason coming in and Justin Tuck being who he is,” Umenyiora said. “I wasn’t able to play as much as I would’ve liked. There’s just no way you could have put all of us on the field at the same time. If you look at it statistically, then, yes, that definitely played a role.

“You’re only going to be able to produce as much as you’re out there on the football field and I wasn’t able to be out there on the football field as much as I’m accustomed to.”

Then, Umenyiora got philosophical and put a pretty good spin on it.

“At the same time, I feel like it was just setting me up for this situation here,” he said. “I feel like I really can help this team. I have a lot less wear and tear on my body over the last two years than I normally would have, if I would have been playing all those downs. Every disappointment is a blessing, and this is definitely a blessing for me; and I’m thankful to come over here and hopefully help this team win.”

He later added that he knows he has to prove his worth in Atlanta.

With Umenyiora’s signing, one glaring hole remains on the Falcons’ roster: starting cornerback. With most of their salary cap room used up, they almost assuredly will have to go through the draft to find one — unless they can get a starter at a hugely discounted price. It also most likely means former starter Brent Grimes, who appears close to signing with Miami, is gone.

One of Umenyiora’s most interesting comments on Thursday came when he was asked about whether he had to mend any fences with the Falcons’ offensive linemen. Before Atlanta played New York in the NFC wild-card round in January 2012, Tuck said the Falcons’ linemen were “dirtbags.”

“No, we’re cool,” Umenyiora said. “I mean, both sides know what it is. The Falcons are a good offensive line. They play with an edge. They always did and will continue to do that, so I’m just happy to be part of this team and I’m going to encourage them to be as dirty as possible and keep doing what they’re doing.

“It’s worked very well for them.”

For the Falcons’ sake, Umenyiora will need to get back to what has worked for him.