That’s not easy to do during offseason training activities with some players unable to participate and others inexperienced.
But entering his 27th season as a coach in the NFL and 15th as a coordinator, Nolan said it’s far too early to be concerned.
“I would say the biggest objective is that we continue to play as one (unit) because it’s not going to be the same group as a year ago,” Nolan said Wednesday. “As opposed to saying we did ‘that’ poorly last year and we’ve got to do ‘that’ better this year or continue what it was, with every group it’s like starting over in my opinion.”
Starting linebackers Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas, last year’s leading tacklers, are sidelined recovering from offseason surgeries, and prized rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant is back in school completing his degree at Washington.
OTAs are voluntary for players, and the Falcons aren’t sure when Weatherspoon, Nicholas and Trufant will return, but coach Mike Smith indicates they’ll be back for a mandatory mini-camp June 18-20.
Until then, Nolan will look at other players on the depth chart.
He has plenty of roles to fill for a defense that last year ranked 24th in total yards, 25th in third-down efficiency and 27th in sacks per passing attempt.
In their first season under Nolan, the Falcons were fourth in scoring and tied for fifth in takeaways, but the NFC South champions had a difficult time containing running quarterbacks.
They went 1-1 against Carolina’s Cam Newton and 1-0 against Washington’s Robert Griffith III before struggling in the playoffs against Seattle’s Russell Wilson and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick.
Kicker Matt Bryant and the Atlanta offense bailed out the defense in a last-second win over Seattle, but the entire team fell short in the second half of the NFC championship loss to San Francisco.
“We kept the points down, we were good in the red zone, we turned the ball over a lot and quarterbacks against us weren’t very successful other than the running guys,” Nolan said. “We won three of the five, but I wouldn’t say we played as well as we can in some of them.”
General manager Thomas Dimitroff didn’t wait long to make significant changes.
John Abraham, the NFL’s active leader in sacks, and starting right cornerback Dunta Robinson were released in moves to create salary cap space.
Cornerback Brent Grimes, who started just one game before a torn Achilles ended his 2012 season, left as a free agent, as did key reserve cornerback Christopher Owens.
In the draft, Dimitroff used six of the team’s eight picks on defense.
Second-rounder Robert Alford of Southeast Louisiana is working behind Asante Samuel, the starter at left cornerback.
Defensive ends Malliciah Goodman of Clemson and Stansly Maponga of TCU were chosen in the fourth and fifth rounds and are challenging Jonathan Massaquoi and Cliff Matthews for snaps behind starters Osi Umenyiora and Kroy Biermann.
Compensatory picks in the seventh round landed safeties Kemal Ishmael of Central Florida and Zeke Motta of Notre Dame. Both are working at third-string.
“This is going to be the most competitive offseason that we’ve had since our first season,” Smith said. “Defensive back is one of the areas where it’s going to be competitive. Not only at the corner position, but at the safety position in the backup roles because of the way we addressed it in the draft.”
One major bright spot is Umenyiora, who signed as a free agent to replace Abraham as the team’s leading pass rusher.
Nolan said Umenyiora has stepped into an immediate leadership role by reporting early to work each day and by working with younger players in the film room and on the field.
Umenyiora, who spent the last 10 years in New York and helped the Giants win two Super Bowls, downplayed his impact, but Nolan disagreed.
“Everybody knows what he can do on the field, and I’m aware of that, too,” Nolan said. “But off the field, those little things are appreciated. I’ll think they’ll help us.”