Umenyiora eyes team first in designated role

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- It will be worth keeping an eye on Osi Umenyiora Monday night.

The veteran defensive end is expected to remain in his new role as a designated pass-rusher as the Atlanta Falcons face the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park.

Apparently, Umenyiora made a noble gesture and approached the coaching staff to suggest the move, knowing the coaches needed to get a closer look at younger players such as Jonathan Massaquoi. The Falcons lauded him for being a team player throughout the process.

The 32-year-old Umenyiora declined to discuss the details behind his conversation with head coach Mike Smith, but he did talk about whether his new role would rollover into next season.

"I don't know,'' Umenyiora said. "Whatever they want to do.''

As Smith explained, the Falcons had former rush specialist John Abraham on a similar type of "pitch count'' before he moved on to Arizona this season. At age 34, Abraham had a team-leading 10 sacks for the Falcons in 2012.

Umenyiora currently leads the Falcons with 7.5 sacks, including one last week as a reserve designated pass-rusher. He had started the first 13 games prior to last week.

Although he no doubt relishes being a starter, Umenyiora understands the benefit of being called upon simply to rush the passer. One of his close friends, Mark Anderson, did the same for the New England Patriots in 2011 and compiled 10 sacks while starting just one game. Anderson turned that into an $8 million payday from Buffalo in '12, although injury cut Anderson's stay with the Bills short.

"Mark definitely did it,'' Umenyiora said of being a situational pass-rusher. "It has turned into that, anyway. It's not a bad thing to be able to come into the game and do that. So, we'll see how it goes.''

Coach Smith was asked if Umenyiora's designated pass-rusher role would lead into next season.

"I can't say it will carryover into next season,'' Smith said. "I do know that we had a conversation and we talked about it. And he was excited about going there and just having an opportunity to rush the passer.''

Umenyiora signed a two-year, $8.5 million deal in the offseason, and his cap figure for next season is $4.75 million. His value extends beyond his play on the field as Umenyiora has earned the respect of his teammates with his professionalism and work ethic.

"A lot of guys have benefited from his presence,'' defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. "I wouldn't say he's Mister Go-Around Vocal, tell guys what to do at all. But I think when a young guy wants to know or wants to watch somebody who's a pro and who shows respect and gets a lot of respect, Osi would be the guy to look at.''

In the immediate future, Umenyiora has to help the Falcons generate a pass rush against Colin Kaepernick and the potent 49ers offensive. Getting to Kaepernick would be the way to assure speedy tight end Vernon Davis doesn't break free all evening, as he was able to do in last season's NFC Championship Game.

"Whoever you've got trying to defend Vernon Davis, it's a mismatch,'' Smith said.