It was a good time to be Jason Pierre-Paul.
After a rookie season that showed such promise, 'JPP' was penciled in as a starter over Pro-Bowl end Osi Umenyiora. The New York Giants believed the former first-round pick was set to break out.
They were right.
In 2011, Pierre-Paul finished the year with 86 tackles, 16.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and a safety as New York won the Super Bowl. The season earned him Pro-Bowl honors and he was named First-Team All-Pro.
But in the years since, Pierre-Paul has yet to experience the same success. He's recorded 8.5 total sacks and is coming off his worst season as a professional. After having back surgery late in the offseason, JPP returned to start just six games and record two sacks in 2013.
The player who was once garnering claim as the most feared defender in the league now finds himself with huge question marks heading into a contract year. Was 2011 an example of a player excelling on a line that already featured greats Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora, or were the last two years just one of the league's best struggling with injuries?
Pierre-Paul says the latter.
2013 season was the worse season 4 me, INJURIES held me back. I've been working my butt off this OFF-SEASON I'm so ready for 2014 season.— Jason Pierre Paul (@UDWJPP) March 30, 2014
When healthy, Pierre-Paul is arguably the best defensive end in the league. The 6-foot-5, 278-pound Florida native possesses Dwight Freeney-like quickness with the strength of J.J. Watt. It was those physical attributes that led to Jerry Reese selecting him with the No. 15 pick in the 2010 NFL Draft.
"He made you take notice, he was jumping off the film," Marc Ross, then-director of college scouting, told the New York Times when Pierre-Paul was drafted. "He was just a junior, but the way he was playing...We had big grades on him throughout the year."
When Pierre-Paul was drafted, he was seen by many as a player with 'tremendous upside,' but also an incredible risk as he lacked football experience. JPP played two years at community colleges, then transferred to South Florida for his junior season.
In seven starts at South Florida, Pierre-Paul recorded 45 tackles, 6.5 sacks, one interception, broke up three passes and forced two fumbles. Pierre-Paul declared for the draft. The Giants saw enough to make him their first-round pick.
Questions surrounded Pierre-Paul as a 21-year-old rookie, they're back again as a 25-year-old vet. If he wants a pay day at the end of the year, with the Giants or elsewhere, he'll once again have to answer them.
The Giants have let Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora depart within the last 24 months, and although they hope to lock up Pierre-Paul long term, they won't break the bank if the play doesn't match the pay. Hakeem Nicks learned this all too well.
Nicks, also a first-round pick, flashed potential to be considered one of the best in the game. Yet after two sub-par seasons, New York let him walk without ever making an offer.
The Giants have spent money this offseason with the expectation Pierre-Paul returns to form. New York brought in the likes of Walter Thurmond III, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie while resigning both Trumaine McBride and Stevie Brown. Little-to-no moves have been to this point on the defensive front.
Justin Tuck is gone, Osi Umenyiora too. It's up to JPP to man a front seven that was once the heart and soul of two Super Bowl championship runs. If Pierre-Paul returns to form and the secondary plays as expected, the Giants could possess one of the better defensive lineups in the league.
But if it's 2013 JPP that trots on the field opening day ... that's a situation Reese and Co. are hoping never comes to fruition.