For the next four weeks, I’ll be posting a weekly feature about upcoming free agents on the Falcons. This feature will be looking at the play of the respective players from the last two seasons. Then, I’ll give a brief outlook on the upside and downside of keeping him around. In the end, a final decision will be made on the free agent in the quest towards rebuilding Atlanta's horrid defense.
Osi Umenyiora will be my first choice, as he’s arguably the most intriguing free agent. While Sean Weatherspoon and Corey Peters should absolutely be re-signed, it’s hard to give a definitive answer for Umenyiora. On one end, he’s coming off his worst season from a statistical standpoint. On the other end, the two time All-Pro showed flashes of brilliance and actual leadership. It may have gone unnoticed, but Umenyiora actually looked motivated and seemed to be growing into a leadership role. That wasn’t always the case throughout his career.
Similar to John Abraham, Umenyiora wasn’t always the most reliable star pass-rusher in New York. He went through his injury-plagued seasons, along with several questions about his desire. Many believed that he would take far too many snaps off and didn’t play inspired. There were contract issues in New York that may have affected his play. Despite being far more liked by Giant fans compared to Abraham. who was loathed by Jet fans, Umenyiora was always knocked for not being a vocal leader like his teammate Justin Tuck.
They never got the vibe of him being a team player, especially when he began to complain about being a backup. That led to his exodus from New York and signing with Atlanta. The senseless expectations of him trying to replace Abraham's production as the leading pass rusher ended up being a complete failure. Some may question that since Umenyiora ended up with 7.5 sacks in 2013. We all know how overrated that statistic can be.
Many of those sacks came from teams not protecting blitzes properly, particularly against the Dolphins and Jets. On far too many occasions, Umenyiora was non-existent in big games. Who can forget in their 30-23 loss to the New England Patriots, when Tony Gonzalez said in private, "we have no pass rush, we’re letting a Hall Of Famer sit back there". Many fans were already tired of believing Osi's reputation for being a stellar pass-rusher. When Abraham was in Atlanta, he would consistently make an impact in some fashion on a weekly basis throughout most seasons. In the miserable 2013 season, weeks would go by and Umenyiora would be anonymous. Aaron Freeman of Falcfans.com broke down Umenyiora's minimal impact through this excellent piece.
He admitted last off-season that his body wore down as the season progressed. The toll of being a full-time starter may have started to affect him. They weren’t limiting his snaps, until the season was over in late November. Most defensive ends shouldn’t be positioned to take 30 to 35 snaps against enormous left tackles at 33 years old. Only rare breeds such as Michael Strahan and Bruce Smith were able to do that. They were far bigger than players like Umenyiora and Abraham, who are both speed rushers that are liabilities against the run.
The ability to limit snaps for an older undersized pass-rusher can prove to be very beneficial. You can watch Abraham’s tape from 2013 in Arizona and see him causing havoc. While Umenyiora will always be a notch below Abraham as a player, he’s still someone that should provide a boost. This isn’t a player that is completely finished. They finally designated him as a situational pass rusher in 2014 and benefitted from it in through their best defensive performances.
Besides the win over Arizona, you can argue that Atlanta’s best defensive performances were against Tampa Bay (both games), Detroit, and New Orleans (away game). While Umenyiora only had 1.5 sacks in those games, he was consistently hovering around the quarterback. Pro Football Focus specifically noted Umenyiora’s pressure against Detroit and New Orleans. In losing 20 pounds from the off-season and trying to add more speed, he had his moments of glory. His performance against the Lions in forcing multiple hurries on third down stood out. Left tackle Riley Reiff was beaten consistently throughout the game. Who can forget Osi's pressure that forced Drew Brees to throw an game-ending interception to Robert McClain?
These memories may seem like small achievements, but that’s the current state of the Falcons pass rush. The defensive line was so underwhelming last year that quarterback pressures have become their most significant memory. It was an odd year for Umenyiora, who reportedly announced his retirement in November. That seems to have ended from being on the receiving end of Carolina’s annihilation of Atlanta. While he still has the tendency to be anonymous for consecutive games, Umenyiora still seems to have the desire to play.
As for the leadership that I mentioned above, we saw some glimpses of it. In the win over Tampa Bay, Umenyiora was the first to confront left tackle Oniel Cousins from taking a cheap shot at Josh Wilson. He was taking more media obligations in discussing the team’s problems and addressed the Jonathan Massaquoi situation. We even saw him visibly become infuriated at one point against Tampa Bay. This is a player that seemed completely disinterested through most of the 2013 season. Brian Finneran even called him out for showing zero urgency in a game against the Buffalo Bills. As the Falcons were 2-6 in November, it wouldn't have been surprising to see Umenyiora check out. Instead he took more responsibility and ended up playing reasonably well. As the 2014 season went on, my appreciation for Umenyiora grew from showing a better work ethic in attempting to help a pitiful pass rush.
Proper expectations always need to be set for any type of player. It’s obvious that Umenyiora is nowhere near the player that he was in New York. The situational pass rusher role is a necessity for him to be effective. If they continue to limit his snaps and get better support around him, that’ll increase his sack total. A combination of better linebacker and safety play could benefit the pass rush greatly. Sean Weatherspoon and William Moore should provide that boost, as long as they can remain healthy.
Should the Falcons keep him, despite being 33 years old? Veteran players are always important to have on defense, regardless of how much young talent they have. Leaders don’t grow on trees and Umenyiora seems to have turned the corner in becoming one. Along with Jonathan Babineaux, he could be a valuable mentor to the plethora of young pass rushers in Atlanta. Kroy Biermann is the better-run defender and more versatile, but the draft should provide a player that can fulfill both roles. The draft should also provide a significant upgrade over Biermann.
Umenyiora should also benefit from not being the main threat as a pass-rusher. With the possibility of a player like Dante Fowler in Atlanta, Umenyiora would become a secondary target. That was something that he excelled at through the last few seasons in New York. There are still questions that need to be mentioned in this particular situation. Could a possible return to New York happen? Would he want to play for a team that can contend for the next two years? Umenyiora hasn’t given any indications of that. A two-year offer worth four million dollars would be my limit. I’d prefer that he would accept a one to one-and-half million-dollar deal. In the end, all players are practically overpaid in the NFL. With his resume, it’s understandable that Osi can still command a decent price.
Some fans may want the defense to be completely rebuilt, but some veterans need to be kept. In the magical 2008 season, don’t forget the veterans that contributed to Atlanta's surprising defense. Abraham, Lawyer Milloy, and Keith Brooking all played vital roles in producing an 11-win team. Veterans are always needed, particularly those that won’t command a huge price and can still be productive. Umenyiora is a streaky player that tends to go through spells without a hit or sack. There is still enough value for me to believe in him as a situational pass-rusher and mentor. Will the front office believe in that value? This current front office is impossible to predict, especially with the new coaching regime coming in. My final verdict is in favor of Umenyiora receiving a thumbs up rather than a wave goodbye.