FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — For much of the off-season, 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 consecutive 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 off-season 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.
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.”
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.”