Umenyiora a big part of Giants' plans

ALBANY, N.Y. -- For a fleeting yet frightening moment here Monday afternoon, you half-expected to look down the sideline and see New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi reaching for his cell phone, dialing up San Diego counterpart AJ Smith to ask whether the Chargers were still interested in acquiring defensive end Osi Umenyiora in a trade.

On an otherwise innocuous off-tackle running play early in the practice, quarterback Eli Manning had handed off, carried out his fake by rolling to his left, and been knocked hard to the ground, unwittingly but unceremoniously, by an aggressive Umenyiora. For a few seconds, all over the burgeoning campus of the State University of New York-Albany, it seemed everything fell silent.

And for a few seconds, too, Umenyiora conceded on Tuesday morning, his heart was in his throat as the Big Blue Nation held its collective breath.

"It was just a simple running play, and Eli kind of circled around after handing the ball off, and I never saw him," explained third-year veteran Umenyiora, who is in his first training camp as a starter. "I didn't even know he was there. The next thing I see is Eli on the ground, and I'm just out there thinking, 'Get up, Eli. C'mon, man, get up.' Until he jumped up, it was like time stood still for a second or two, you know?"

Standing still is something about which Umenyiora, a player the Chargers desperately sought from Accorsi 16 months ago in the landmark draft day trade that brought Manning to the Giants, need not concern himself.

An active and athletic young player, and the brand of versatile, hybrid edge defender so much in demand around the league now, Umenyiora has seen his plate suddenly stacked high by coordinator Tim Lewis. And, the surprise second-round selection from Troy State in the 2003 draft is hungry to assimilate everything he can in an attempt to help further improve a Giants defense that ranked No. 13 statistically in 2004.

That the battered defense managed to finish in the top half of the league was a testament to Lewis' resourcefulness and ingenuity, and to the surprising performances of a number of young players, Umenyiora included. New York suffered eight injuries on the defensive front, and Accorsi spent much of the year pulling guys off the street to fill out the depth chart, but one benefit was getting youngsters such as Umenyiora onto the field.

When starting right end Keith Washington was forced onto injured reserve in November, it nudged Umenyiora into the lineup, significantly accelerating the learning curve for a youngster who didn't even begin playing football until his senior year of high school. The result: In seven starts, all in the second half of the campaign, Umenyiora registered four sacks, two fumble recoveries and 34 tackles. Against the Steelers, he was credited with 13 tackles and a sack in a performance Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher aptly described as "dominating."

For the year, Umenyiora, whose circuitous path to the NFL has included three continents, posted 58 tackles; team highs in sacks (seven) and fumble recoveries (four); three forced fumbles; and 18 quarterback pressures. Those numbers will mushroom this season with Umenyiora unchallenged as the starter at right end.

"To get better in this league, you have to play, it's that simple," Umenyiora said. "You don't get any better unless you get snaps, and last year, because of the circumstances with all the injuries here, I got snaps. To be honest, if [Washington] hadn't gotten hurt, I'd be about the same player in this camp that I was last summer. Now I'm doing stuff that is just coming naturally. I'm faster, quicker, more explosive, and that comes from getting experience playing the game. The more experience I get, the better I'm going to be."

Umenyiora, who won't even turn 25 until November, certainly will have the opportunity to augment his résumé in 2005 -- and in a variety of ways. Constrained by the injuries of last season, Lewis was forced to simplify his plans for the end position, to streamline the job description and scrap a lot of the design. In camp, though, there have been broad hints of what is to come for multifaceted Umenyiora and, really, all the Giants ends.

Two examples: On Monday afternoon, starting left end Michael Strahan rose up out of his three-point stance before the snap, walked out into the slot as if to cover the receiver aligned there, then blitzed from the wide set. The next morning, Strahan dropped 20 yards off the line in one unusual coverage scheme that had him matched up against tight end Jeremy Shockey in the seam. As the designated "buck end" in Lewis' expanded and ambitious blueprint, Umenyiora will do all those things and more.

Although they are not especially deep at end, the Giants do have better edge defenders in 2005, with the emergence of Umenyiora and the continued improvement of second-year linebacker Reggie Torbor. The upgraded athleticism at the outside position, and Lewis' plans to turn those defenders loose, should make for more big plays on a unit that rated in the middle of the NFL pack in takeaways in 2004.

"They're asking me to do a lot and, while it's a challenge, I love it," Umenyiora said. "It really is pretty cool. They're giving me a big chance to go out and make plays. I mean, I really am playing all over the place."

That Umenyiora is still playing in a Giants uniform is a product of Accorsi's unwavering refusal to include him in the historic trade in which Manning came to the club and fellow first-round quarterback Philip Rivers went to the Chargers in the first hour of the 2004 draft. San Diego officials kept insisting Umenyiora had to be part of the compensation for parting with Manning. And Accorsi, convinced that he had a potentially special defender on his roster, kept rebuffing the demand.

"In every conversation," Accorsi said, "[Umenyiora's] name was the first one that they brought up. If it was going to be a deal-breaker, then it was going to be a deal-breaker, [because] I wasn't putting him in [to the trade package]." Added coach Tom Coughlin: "It's hard to find ends that athletically talented. When you get one, you just can't let him get away."

So the Giants were able to snag Manning and still keep Umenyiora, as well. And though the young defensive end isn't quite the centerpiece on his side of the ball that Manning has become on offense, there is no underestimating his importance. At 33, Strahan is still a force, but he's also a player coming off a serious shoulder injury that limited him to only eight games in '04 and is facing his football dotage. His sacks totals might not diminish all that much, but it's a sure bet Umenyiora's will increase.

The Manning-Umenyiora connection is interesting. Manning is part of NFL royalty, one of the princes of the league's first family of quarterbacks. On the flip side, Umenyiora is the son of Nigerian parents, and his family so loathes the physical side of football that his stepmother watched the games through her fingers.

Umenyiora was born in London, moved to Nigeria for several years at age 6, then to the United States for good in 1995. At Auburn (Ala.) High School, he went out for the football team as a senior only because a good friend, Shawn Marcel, saw him dominating in a basketball game and figured Osi was wasting a lot of athletic ability. Despite a solid senior year, he was not recruited, and he landed at Troy only because one of his high school coaches persuaded the school's defensive line coach, former NFL player Tracy Rocker, to look at some tape.

It is not unlike the saga of Demarcus Ware, the latest Troy defensive line star and a first-round choice of the Dallas Cowboys in this year's draft. Umenyiora and Ware rode the same bus together to Auburn High School, talked of one day lining up for the beloved Auburn Tigers, settled for playing at Troy instead.

Umenyiora's first three seasons were spent, incredibly, at nose tackle. Finally, for his senior season, he moved to end -- where he notched 16 sacks and caught the attention of NFL scouts. The Giants, anxious to find the eventual heir to Strahan's sack crown, chose him with the 56th overall selection. Then, just over a year later, they refused to sacrifice him to the Chargers, even if it meant the collapse of the blockbuster Manning deal.

Asked what he thought of his status as the near deal-buster in one of the most unusual trades in NFL history, Umenyiora smiled.

"I guess it means that they think pretty [highly] of me around here," he said. "But I know this: If I run into Eli again, and ruin his career by hurting him, they're going to run me out of here in a heartbeat."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.