Umenyiora says it’s a blessing that he spent 10 years with New York and helped the Giants win two Super Bowls.
But after signing a two-year, $8.5 million contract with the Falcons in late March, Umenyiora began a new phase of his career without having to depart for training camp and leave his 5-year-old son, his fiancee and his father — all of whom live with him in the Atlanta suburbs.
He’s been in his current home since 2005 and first moved to metro Atlanta after his senior season at Troy State in 2002.
“It means the world, man,” Umenyiora said Saturday. “I get to see my little boy every day. I get to see my dad and my family. I don’t have to leave and go away and come back and all that stuff.”
After engaging in several years of contract squabbles with the Giants’ front office and later having his role reduced on New York’s defensive line, Umenyiora has settled into a comfortable life as a professional.
He is the undisputed leader of the Falcons’ line now that John Abraham, his predecessor and the NFL’s active career sacks leader, is playing for Arizona.
Coach Mike Smith said Umenyiora has gone out of his way to motivate some of his younger teammates on the field, in the classroom and in the locker room.
When Smith handed out the team’s offseason workout schedule in the spring, Umenyiora came to his office within an hour and asked if he could report for his weight training at 6 a.m.
“He said, ‘Hey, coach, I’m an early-morning guy,’ and I replied, ‘Absolutely, no problem at all,” Smith said. “But when I looked in the weight room a few days later, it’s not just him in there. He’s got a small group of guys in there that he had taken under his wing.”
Rookie defensive end Malliciah Goodman, a fourth-round draft pick from Clemson, has gotten lots of helpful advice from Umenyiora, who built an impressive NFL resume by rushing outside offensive tackles to knock the ball out quarterbacks’ hands and force fumbles.
Umenyiora is working with Goodman to use his long arms to knock down an offensive tackle’s top hand just as he comes out of his stance. Goodman is learning how to gain leverage and keep the offensive tackle from punching against his chest to keep him out of the pocket.
“He picks what you’re struggling with to kind of help you with it,” Goodman said. “He’s a vet. He’s been there. He’s done it. He’s had a bunch of success. Just any little thing you learn from him is a big help.”
Umenyiora knows he will be judged ultimately on how well he rushes the passer. His sacks total dipped last season to six, his lowest total in five years, but he also was used as a situational rusher and started just four of 16 games behind Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul.
Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan plans to use Umenyiora on the right and left side of the line. As Abraham did last year in Nolan’s first season with Atlanta, Umenyiora also is working occasionally in a stand-up stance as a hybrid end-outside linebacker.
“Never really done that before, but in a situation like this where it’s something that I might have to do, I just have to work,” he said. “I don’t know if I’m going to do it during an actual game or not, but it’s cool to come out here, get a feel for it and see if I can do it.”
His role is still being defined, but that’s common under Smith and Nolan, who cross-train ends to play tackle, tackles to play end and safeties to play linebacker. Nolan even deployed defensive end Kroy Biermann at safety last year in Week 2 as the Falcons intercepted Peyton Manning three times and beat the Denver Broncos.
“Honestly, I’m just happy to be here,” Umenyiora said. “Not to say I wasn’t happy to be with my former team, but I’m just happy to be here. It’s a very good football team, and I’m anxious to get the season started.”
NOTE: Smith said that TE Tony Gonzalez, who was given permission to miss an unspecified amount of training camp and preseason, is expected to return in two weeks and to play in the second and third preseason games Aug. 15 at Baltimore and Aug. 24 at Tennessee. Gonzalez, the NFL’s No. 2 career-leading receiver, has announced that he will retire after the 2013 season. The 37-year-old Gonzalez said this week that he will spend time with his family and watch his son practice football in southern California.