[EDITOR’S NOTE: It is ‘Underdog Week’ for SB Nation. Who is more of an NFL underdog than an undrafted free agent?]
The distinguished history of the New York Football Giants dates back to 1925, where the early stages of football were attempting to entrench themselves into American society. While that quest sauntered its way through time, names like Tuffy Leemons, Mel Hein, and Jack Lummus (who was killed at Iwo Jima in WWII) were setting a prominent foundation of toughness, pride, and success. As the sport evolved, so did the method of selecting players; scouts started becoming more diligent, as did coaches, and the fanfare around college football led to a more disciplined and systematic process of selecting full-time football players. This process is now known as the modern NFL draft.
Scouts are punctilious in their evaluations of players, yet so many still slip through the cracks. A wise man once told me that development isn’t always linear, which essentially means a player isn’t always on an upward trajectory in terms of his development. This is important because the Giants have done a great job in recent history developing undrafted prospects who end up making a huge contribution on the field. True underdogs that overcame the odds to make an impact. Some of these prospects may have flared out of the league in other situations. But with the Giants, they were able to ascend with their development and turn into quality starters. Let’s take a nostalgic look at the top 5 undrafted free agents, since the year 2000, that excelled on the Giants.
Victor Cruz, WR, UMASS
Undrafted out of Paterson, N.J., Cruz made an immediate name for himself against the Jets, in a preseason game, where he caught 3 touchdowns and had 6 catches overall for 145 yards. Unfortunately for Cruz, he was injured and put on the IR after Week 3. Steve Smith departed the Giants in 2011, which allowed Cruz to start alongside Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham. In Week 3 of 2011, Cruz caught 3 passes, for more than 100 yards and 2 touchdowns, which would elicit salsa mania. Cruz found the end-zone eight more times that season, including one in the Super Bowl. Cruz finished that magical 2011 season with 82 receptions, for 1536 yards and 9 touchdowns, while having 11 games of more than 90 yards receiving. In 2013, Cruz signed a five-year, $45.8 million contract to stay on the Giants. But early in the 2014 season, Cruz suffered a devastating patellar tendon tear, which sparked the demise of his great, yet brief, Giants career. Big Blue does not win Super Bowl XLVI without Victor Cruz. An underdog story that led to Cruz hoisting the Lombardi Trophy over the likes of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Unfortunately, his career ended early, and I deliberately forget that he ever wore a Chicago Bears’ jersey, but the impact of this underdog was invaluable to the Giants.
Shaun O’Hara, C, Rutgers
O’Hara was an undrafted rookie free agent in 2000 with the Chris Palmer led Cleveland Browns. He started games in all four of his seasons with the Browns, before coming over to the newly hired Tom Coughlin led New York Giants. O’Hara signed a three-year, $5.4 million contract with New York in 2004. During his time with the Giants, O’Hara was named to three Pro Bowls and was a pivotal piece to the 2007 Super Bowl championship. He started almost every game for the Giants until 2010, where he only started six due to a LisFranc injury. O’Hara embodied toughness, football intelligence, and leadership that would help breed the success that spawned some of the most prideful moments in New York Giants’ football history.
Rich Seubert, OL, Western Illinois
You want to talk about a resilient, tough player, look no further than Rich Seubert, who was an undrafted rookie free agent in 2001. He played his entire nine-year career in Giants’ blue, and he dealt with his fair share of setbacks. Seubert missed most of 2003 and all of 2004 with a broken fibula, tibia, and ankle. His ability to battle back, as an undrafted free agent, is incredible. I remember watching Seubert limp off the field against Philadelphia, and it looked terrible. It took Seubert a while to finally get right and up to speed on the field, while also trying to find what position best fit his current skill set. He was able to put it all together in 2007, where he started every game at left guard. Seubert was truly an underrated player, who had all the odds stacked against him throughout his career. He’s one of the players undrafted rookies should emulate.
Antonio Pierce, LB, Arizona State
Like O’Hara, Pierce spent his first contract with another team, a division rival - the Washington Redskins, where he was an undrafted rookie free agent in 2001. Pierce was stuck behind Jeremiah Trotter until the Redskins released Trotter two years into his contract, which provided Pierce the avenue to finally start in his final year with Washington. Pierce recorded more than 100 tackles that season, which was a contract year, and Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi took notice.
Pierce quickly became a captain on defense for the Giants and recorded more than 100 tackles in each of the next three seasons. Pierce was vital to the Giants’ second-level defense in the Super Bowl XLII run. We can all fondly appreciate the open field tackle he made on the screen to Brandon Jackson in the 2007 NFC Championship game; a third-and-8 play where the Packers would have easily scored in their two-minute drill to end the half. Without this undrafted Sun Devil coming to man the middle of Steve Spagnuolo’s defense, the Patriots 18-1 season may have been 19-0, and the history of the NFL would look entirely different.
Chase Blackburn, LB, Akron
A long-time special teamer for the Giants turned into an unlikely Super Bowl hero in 2011. Undrafted in 2005, Blackburn finished his Giants career as a two-time Super Bowl champion, who spent part of 2011 teaching eighth-grade math in Ohio. After the lockout in 2011, Blackburn never got a call back from the Giants until late in the season. Both linebackers Clint Sintim and Jonathan Goff were injured early and out for the season, and young Greg Jones, Jacquian Williams, and Mark Herzlich (honorable mention for this list), were filling in, but the Giants felt it necessary to bring Blackburn back into the fold.
Blackburn was a Giants’ special teams captain and he’s famously remembered for intercepting Tom Brady in Super Bowl XLVI. Blackburn boxed out Patriots’ tight end Rob Gronkowski for the interception. Blackburn’s contributions on special teams shouldn’t go understated either. His entire story, especially his 2011 season, is a story-book underdog tale that couldn’t have been scripted by Hollywood. Blackburn is now the special teams coordinator for the Panthers, which is where he played his final two years.
There are plenty of other undrafted free agents that made an impact for the Giants: James Butler, Jake Ballard, Mark Herzlich, Kevin Dockery, Craig Dahl, DJ Ware, Henry Hynoski, Spencer Paysinger, and Kerry Wynn all come to mind; but Pierce, Blackburn, Seubert, O’Hara, and Cruz all had a significant influence on the Giants recent Super Bowls.