After six years in Atlanta, a Falcons defense would look odd without the familiar No. 55 lining up at defensive end and terrorizing opposing quarterbacks.
It's been an interesting offseason for both the Falcons and John Abraham. Abraham tested the waters of free agency for a while before rejoining the Falcons. Atlanta spent much of their free agent dollars bringing back players from last year's squad. Through OTAs and two days of minicamp, it appears to have been a good idea. The continuity of the roster has allowed new coordinators to introduce some of their own concepts to a scheme already in place and familiar to many of the team's starters.
The Falcons put a premium on re-signing their players to conserve that continuity.
"We made a lot of moves in this offseason," head coach Mike Smith said on Tuesday. "I think 17 of them. The majority of them were to keep our guys. ...You can't re-sign them all, it's impossible with the salary cap. I really like what Thomas (Dimitroff) and his staff did to re-stock this roster as we move forward."
The presence of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan helped make Abraham's decision to return to Atlanta even easier. Nolan was Abraham's first coordinator as a rookie in New York in 2000 and the two have remained friends over the years.
"That was one my main reasons for coming back also," Abraham said of Nolan. "I know what kind of coach he is and I know what kind of guy he is. They do a great job of bringing people around here that have great character. Me and Mike, we've been friends ever since he drafted me my rookie year. I'm glad to be back with him and have an opportunity to do good things together."
Abraham's presence back on the line gives Atlanta a dominant individual player whose age doesn't appear to be slowing him down. At 34, Abraham is still regarded as one of the premier pass rushers in the NFL. Though he tested the market, Abraham said on Wednesday, Atlanta was where he wanted to be all along.
"I've been comfortable (in Atlanta)," Abraham said. "Mike Smith and the whole organization have taken care of me. I want to be here. The money really wasn't a factor. I feel like the Falcons have a great chance of being a Super Bowl team. Once you get past that hump of the first round, I think we'll be okay. We're doing good. We've just got to keep working. I really felt we've got something special so that's why I wanted to come back."
Abraham didn't participate in Atlanta's OTA sessions, but returned to the team for the minicamp. Nolan said Abraham's experience will enable him to pick up the changes to the defense quickly, and he's asking all the right questions as he gets back to work.
"He's missed some of the OTAs and we're at a little bit of an advanced state of the language so some of John's things are going a little bit slower because he's having to ask more questions because he wasn't here for those times," Nolan said.
Abraham returns to a line that returns all its key players from last season. 2011 draft pick Cliff Matthews missed all of OTAs with an injury, but he returned to practice during minicamp.
"It was nice to see Cliff Matthews back out," Smith said on Tuesday. "It was the first time he's been able to compete all offseason. Cliff is recovering from some offseason surgery. He's going to be in the mix on the defensive line."
Recently, the starter opposite Abraham, Ray Edwards, said Nolan's defensive line plans less coverage from the linemen and more attacking the quarterback, a scheme that Edwards personally prefers.
Another Falcons re-signed player, Kroy Biermann, said the extra reps in Abraham's absence was helpful for young players like himself and Lawrence Sidbury, but they're still happy to have the veteran coming back for minicamp and another season.
"When he wasn't here for OTAs, I got a few more reps here and there, but Abe's good," Biermann said. "He's ready to work and he's been a big part of this team for a long time. It's good to have him back again."
Another player that stands to benefit from the return of Abraham is linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. With Abraham and the others in the front four rushing to the quarterback, the linebackers will be more free to roam around the field and make plays on ball carriers and pass catchers. Weatherspoon thinks Abraham still plays at an elite level and welcomes him back with open arms.
"He can come off the edge," Weatherspoon said. "He can beat any tackle. I'm confident in Abe and his pass rush. I was definitely glad when we signed him back."