For much of the free agency period, it appeared likely the Falcons would lose defensive end John Abraham, the team’s top pass rusher. Instead Abraham has returned to find his new defensive coordinator is Mike Nolan, who was the Jets’ defensive coordinator for his 2000 rookie season. Abraham says it’s a perfect fit.
FLOWERY BRANCH — For much of the offseason, it appeared John Abraham was a player the Atlanta Falcons could not afford to re-sign.
As it turned out, Abraham was someone the team could not afford to lose — and the defensive end says Atlanta was a place he never wanted to leave.
After proving he remains productive by leading the team with 9 1/2 sacks in 2011, Abraham signed a three-year, $16.72 million contract in March.
There’s a bonus for Abraham: Mike Nolan, his first defensive coordinator with the Jets, is now heading the Falcons’ defense.
Abraham’s exit from the Falcons seemed inevitable early in free agency when he said on an Atlanta radio station he expected to earn $12 million per season. He later said he only wanted to earn what he deserved.
“I wanted to be here,” he said this week. “Money wasn’t really a factor.”
The problem for the Falcons was they couldn’t bring back all of their free agents. Linebacker and tackles leader Curtis Lofton signed with New Orleans, and return specialist and backup receiver Eric Weems signed with Chicago.
The team, looking to maintain momentum after four straight winning seasons, retained most of its free agents, including center Todd McClure and safety Thomas DeCoud. The Falcons also held onto several key backups: quarterback Chris Redman, receiver Harry Douglas, defensive end Kroy Biermann and running back Jason Snelling.
Atlanta used its franchise tag to keep cornerback Brent Grimes.
The team’s biggest offseason splash came in its trade with the Eagles for cornerback Asante Samuel, but perhaps no move was more important than re-signing Abraham.
The 34-year-old has 58 1/2 sacks in six seasons with Atlanta and his departure would have left a huge void in the defense.
No other Atlanta player had more than four sacks last season. Ray Edwards, signed before the 2011 season to provide a pass-rushing complement to Abraham, had only 3 1/2.
Abraham’s production trumped any concern about his age.
“He’s been our most productive pass rusher, that’s obvious,” coach Mike Smith said Thursday as the Falcons completed their three-day minicamp.
“He provides some real good leadership on the defensive line. We were very excited that we could come to an agreement with John and that he’s going to be here with us.”
Abraham said he’s enjoying his reunion with Nolan.
“No question, he drafted me,” Abraham said. “That was one of my main reasons for coming back also. I know what kind of coach he is. I know what kind of guy he is. They do a great job of bringing people around who have great character and are great coaches.”
Nolan is preserving the 4-3 as the Falcons’ base defense but is adding some 3-4 looks.
Nolan says “The biggest challenge for the players is always language.” Nolan noted Abraham is “kind of going a little bit slower” because he didn’t participate in the voluntary OTAs before the mandatory minicamp.
“He’s having to ask questions because he wasn’t here for some of those classes,” Nolan said.
Nolan said Abraham will catch up quickly.
“Nonetheless, John is a good player,” Nolan said. “I know that. … As a player who has been in the league for 13 years, that doesn’t change that much.”
Abraham said he and Nolan have remained “good friends” since their 2000 season together with the Jets.
“I’m glad to be back with him and I’m glad we have the opportunity to do great things together,” Abraham said.
Abraham said he wanted to remain in Atlanta because he likes the organization and believes the team has Super Bowl talent.
The Falcons are 43-21 in four seasons with Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan, but they are 0-3 in the playoffs, including a 24-2 wild-card loss last season to the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants.
“Once you get past that hump in the first round, I think we’ll be OK,” Abraham said. “I like this team. I like this staff right now. We’re doing good. We just have to keep working and keep doing good.”
NOTES: The Falcons announced their training camp schedule will begin on July 26 and will include a combined practice with the Tennessee Titans on Aug. 6 in north Georgia. It marks the third straight year the Falcons have had combined practices with another team during training camp. They hosted the Jaguars and Patriots in 2010 and paid a return visit to Jacksonville in 2011.