As bloody a reputation as the physically grueling NFC East has developed over time, speed remains invaluable.
New York Giants fans will remember the Philadelphia Eagles' DeSean Jackson effectively dashing their postseason hopes with a last-second punt return in Week 15, and the rest of the division has already felt the impact of young, explosive players like Jeremy Maclin, Dez Bryant and Miles Austin.
When the Giants selected Jerrel Jernigan in the third round of April's 2011 NFL Draft, the pick was widely seen as an effort to keep pace with the burgeoning explosiveness of their division.
The 5-foot-8, 181-pound wide receiver from Troy set school career records in receptions (262), receptions per game (5.24) and receiving yards (3,128) in his four years as a Trojan, and his abilities as a kick and punt returner also caught the eyes of the Giants' front office. Jernigan is Troy's third all-time leading kickoff returner with 67 returns for 1,580 yards, and he also is 12th in program history with 372 punt return yards. At the NFL Scouting Combine in late February, Jernigan ran a 4.46-second 40-yard dash, tied for ninth among wide receivers.
"My speed, [gaining] yards after contact, making guys miss, ability to run past people," Jernigan answered when asked about the strengths of his game.
Jernigan's versatility — he also was a dual-threat quarterback in high school — makes him a valuable mid-round selection, but the Eufaula, Ala., native says the Giants haven't told him exactly where he'll fit in.
"No, Coach Coughlin and Jerry Reese, they said they expect me to come in and do some things for them," Jernigan said. "I'd have to say probably on special teams first; kickoff returns, punt returns, stuff like that. So, we'll see."
At the draft, however, head coach Tom Coughlin didn't seem worried.
"He has a lot of options — high school quarterback, wildcat, wide receiver," Coughlin said after the Giants drafted Jernigan. "I know you all looked at his numbers with numbers of catches the number — but let's face it, he was operating in a situation a little bit without a big arm at the quarterback position. And I think the type of routes that he ran were high percentage routes and not as many up the field routes. And of course, he does have that vertical speed."
At the draft, Giants director of college scouting Marc Ross said the team got Jernigan where they expected to. Jernigan also said he expected to go anywhere from the mid-second to early-third rounds, but the pick still brings high value. Two separate NFLDraftScout.com mock drafts had Jernigan going 59th, but he was ultimately taken 83rd.
Of course, given the issues presented by the current lockout situation, Jernigan's transition to professional football figures to be less smooth than he originally anticipated. Since the lockout was reinstated during the second round of the draft, Jernigan's contact with the Giants' staff was limited to a brief phone call with Coughlin.
"Whenever this lockout gets over with, it's just going to set the rookies back even more with learning the playbook and going out and actually learning plays and stuff like that," Jernigan said. "It's just going to put us back a bit more ... but I think it worked out."
Jernigan has also been unable to pick up a playbook, though he has had contact with quarterback Eli Manning — as well as fellow Troy alum, kicker Lawrence Tynes.
"[Eli] congratulated me and talked about the lockout and how we can't do much or whatever," Jernigan said, adding that he plans to be in New York in two weeks to begin to learn the area. "He wants me to get up there to throw the ball around, do things like starting to learn all this lingo and the playbook and stuff."
Something Jernigan won't have to learn is the impact his versatility and big-play ability can have on the Giants. Growing up in Alabama, Jernigan didn't have a local NFL team to root for, though he did admit to being an Auburn Tigers fan in college football. Rather, Jernigan's favorite team was the Atlanta Falcons, where he enjoyed watching Michael Vick stun the league with his unprecedented athleticism.
While Jernigan waits to bring his own talents to the NFL, he's been taking careful note of the players already in the league that he can model his game after.
"Of course I've been watching [players], especially DeSean Jackson because everybody's saying I kind of remind them of him," Jernigan said. "I'm probably a little bigger, he's probably — I don't want to say faster — he's probably about the same speed.
"He's the type of player to watch," Jernigan added. "He works truly to the game; punt returns, kickoff returns, receiver and all that. That's the one [player] that I watch closely."
When healthy, the Giants have a talented wide receiver group led by Steve Smith, Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham. But Smith, a pending free agent coming off microfracture knee surgery, is no guarantee to be fully recovered when football starts. Domenik Hixon, Ramses Barden and Victor Cruz are also all working to return from injury-plagued seasons. Jernigan excelled as a slot receiver at Troy, and he could see some immediate action there — if his acclimation to the Giants' system isn't too severely hindered by the lockout.
Jernigan's most likely chance at early playing time, though, will be on special teams. The Giants ranked 31st in both kickoff and punt returns last season, averaging 19 and 6.1 yards per return, respectively. Darius Reynaud averaged a paltry 18.4 yards on kick returns and only 5.7 yards per punt return last season, while D.J. Ware contributed 20.6 yards per kick return.
Fortunately for New York, Jernigan has experience returning both punts and kicks.
"I like both of them, but last year was my first year doing punt returns," Jernigan said. "I'm a little more comfortable back down on kickoff returns."
Last season, Jernigan returned 25 kickoffs for an average of 25.2 yards per and one 100-yard touchdown. On punts, Jernigan had 23 returns for 12.83 yards per and one more touchdown. As a receiver, he recorded 84 catches for 822 yards (9.79 yards per) and six touchdowns.
With the Giants' veteran offense still in need of a big-play threat, Jernigan has a remarkable opportunity ahead of him. Should he continue to be one of the most dangerous weapons on the field, Jernigan could carve a very special role for himself in New York.