Last week, I broke down Falcons free agent pickup in running back Steven Jackson. This week it’s time to look at the team’s other big off-season addition in defensive end Osi Umenyiora.
Umenyiora has big shoes to fill, because most are expecting him to take the mantle from John Abraham as the team’s top and most feared pass rusher. Abraham gave the Falcons six and a half excellent seasons, logging 68.5 sacks, which tops their all-time list among official stats. Claude Humphrey, unofficially has 94.5 career sacks in a Falcons uniform, but his career ended before sacks became an official stat in 1982.
Umenyiora is coming off a down year in New York with only 6 sacks, tying his career low since he became a starter in 2004. But the Falcons are optimistic that he can have a resurgence with a change in scenery, particularly given that Atlanta is the place that Osi calls home in the off-season. Similar to Abraham, a native of South Carolina, after moving down from the Big Apple, playing in front of friends and family was perhaps a factor in his success.
But first we should take a look at Osi’s skillset. Here’s my breakdown, with a grading system based on a ten-point scale: 1-pathetic, 2-poor, 3-weak, 4-below average, 5-average, 6-above average, 7-good, 8-very good, 9-excellent, 10-elite.
Strength: 5.5 – He knows how to convert speed to power in order to bull rush off the edge. He shows the ability to use that power move to work the unsuspecting tackle back into the quarterback. But he’s not overly strong and struggles to disengage from blocks, particularly in the run game. His lack of strength shows when he is facing bigger tackles that are also technically sound.
Quickness: 7.5 – Osi still possesses a good first step off the edge that is maximized when he can line up in wider techniques. When he can pin his ears back, he is a formidable speed rusher off the edge that does most of his damage that way. But he no longer has the explosive burst he once did and isn’t a threat to beat the better tackles in the league purely with his speed.
Pass Rush: 8.0 – He makes his money as a pass rusher that has an array of moves to get to the quarterback. As mentioned before, he shows he can bull rush from time to time. He also has showcased an inside counter move, which is often a spin. It’s not quite on par with say Dwight Freeney, but it can be effective from time to time. He’s at his most comfortable rushing the quarterback when his ears are pinned back and he can go out and hunt using his edge speed.
Point of Attack: 5.0 – Umenyiora is not particularly strong or good at the point of attack. While he can be effective using his hands to disengage from tight ends and make stops there, most of his plays against the run come in pursuit and out in space. He’s not a guy you want trying to hold or set the edge when teams run at him, because he rarely makes plays there.
Recognition: 6.0 – At times he seems to be a bit too dialed in trying to get upfield and will misread some plays, such as draws and screens. He has enough athleticism to drop into coverage and be effective in the flat and able to keep things in front of him, but he doesn’t have quite the experience or awareness to think he’d be very effective doing that to a large degree.
Motor: 5.5 – Osi’s motor seems to run hot and cold at times. There are times when he’s dialed in and he’s running all over the field, and there are other times where you see him jogging quite a bit and seems disinterested, especially when he’s asked to try and play the run a lot. It’s not to suggest his motor is poor, it’s just that he’s not going to be relentless and is more willing to pick and choose his spots.
It’s going to be hard for me not to compare Osi with Abraham, which probably isn’t fair to Osi. But as mentioned earlier, Abraham was a fixture in Atlanta for over half a decade and one of the greats to ever suit up in a Falcons uniform. And he’s gone now with Osi ostensibly taking his place.
One of the reasons why the Falcons were attracted to Osi as an Abraham replacement was the fact that he is three and a half years younger. But despite this fact, I don’t think Osi at age 31 is better than Abraham was at age 34, which is how old he was last season. At least that did not appear to be the case when I watched tape of the Giants.
While Osi still has the ability to control and impact on games, those games were few and far between last year. His best game seemingly came against weaker competition, a regular criticism of Abraham throughout the latter part of his tenure in Atlanta.
Umenyiora was reduced to a situational player in New York partly due to the emergence of young Jason Pierre-Paul, who has proven to be a much more effective run defender. That relegated Umenyiora mostly to coming off the bench in nickel situations, with Pierre-Paul lining up across from him at the end spot, and Justin Tuck kicking inside to tackle. This alignment worked with great effectiveness in 2011 as the Giants made their Super Bowl run. Osi had 9 sacks in 9 games, missing most of September and December due to injury. But he came through in their stretch run, tallying 2 sacks in the season finale against the Dallas Cowboys to get the Giants into the playoffs, and then adding 3.5 in their postseason run.
In 2010, Osi led the league with 10 fumbles forced, a mark that has only been achieved two other times in NFL history. Since then, he’s combined for just 4 strips, but he still has the ability to get those sack-strips closing from the blindside on the quarterback. One of the reasons why his production has dipped in that arena in recent years probably has to do with him possibly losing a step in terms of his explosiveness off the edge.
Watching Osi on tape, you notice that he’s not particularly tall player. And that causes him to play upright a bit when coming out of his rush, especially if he can’t win purely with speed. And that often happens when he isn’t in one of those wider techniques designed to let him maximize his speed off the edge. Being upright isn’t great for edge rushers, but it does make me believe that he might be a bit more natural and effective standing up off the edge. That was how the Falcons used Abraham for most of the 2012 season, acting essentially like an outside linebacker in a 3-4. Abraham didn’t adapt particularly well to this role. And while I think Osi is better suited to playing with his hand in the ground, similar to Abraham, I do think there is a possibility that he might be better suited to playing that role. But again, to take full advantage of Osi in that role as a stand-up rusher, the Falcons are going to have to allow him to use his speed. I didn’t see many instances last year in New York, where Osi got pressure when he didn’t beat the tackle with his first step. He needs to either blow by the tackle off the ball, or set him up to get him off-balanced with his speed, to potentially set up the bull rush or the counter move. Asking Osi to use his hands and fight off blockers doesn’t play to his strengths, which can often be the case when playing more of that rush linebacker role depending on the situation.
The interesting questions surrounding Osi is going to be how defensive coordinator Mike Nolan opts to use him. He’s not as comfortable dropping into coverage as Abraham was, and he’s not quite as effective a run defender as Abraham. While Abe was not particularly stout at the point of attack in terms of holding blocks, he did an excellent job getting upfield and making stops in the backfield. Abraham has had 5 tackles for loss in each of the past three seasons in Atlanta (according to STATS LLC), while Osi has 6.5 tackles for loss combined in the past four seasons.
Nolan’s defense is a multiple unit that isn’t afraid to mix up their fronts to try and get offenses off-balanced. The Giants didn’t have a ton of diversity in how they used Osi last year, not from what I saw. He had his hand on the ground every snap and either lined up in a 7 or 9-technique, playing mostly on the right side, but also getting reps on the left side when possible. Now, it’s likely that Osi will be used in the same capacity for the most part here in Atlanta, but there’s potential that he could be asked to drop into coverage a lot more. Osi dropped into coverage just 6 times last year (per Pro Football Focus), compared to Abraham dropping 36 times here in Atlanta.
The other interesting thing is whether or not Osi will be asked to defend the run as much under Nolan. About 34% of Osi’s 653 snaps last year (per Pro Football Focus) came on run downs. For Abraham last year, that figure was 38%. Certainly not a huge discrepancy, but given Osi’s less than stellar reputation as a run defender, it’ll be interesting to see if the Falcons take bigger steps to try and “hide” him in those situations. That likely means reps for Kroy Biermann and Jonathan Babineaux at defensive end, something the Falcons used quite a bit last year. It also could give greater opportunities to either Cliff Matthews or rookie Malliciah Goodman to eat into snaps on run downs.
One of the major reasons why free agent pickups don’t have a high success rate in the NFL is because players will have played a number of years in one particularly scheme and honing their skills for that. Then they go to a new team and are playing in a different scheme and are trying to adjust on the fly. This typically doesn’t work out for the player. Often times you have issues of motivation as players will often pout about how they are being used (see Albert Haynesworth and Ray Edwards). It’s going to be interesting to see how the Falcons use Osi differently than what he did in New York, and whether or not he can adjust to the coming changes.