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Memorable contributions from late-round and undrafted Giants

Remembering some low draft picks and undrafted free agents who did big things for the Giants

New York Giants v New York Jets Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images

New York Giants fans have been bubbling with excitement over their team’s ability to secure cornerback Deonte Banks, center John Michael Schmitz, wide receiver Jalin Hyatt, and running back Eric Gray in the first five rounds of the 2023 NFL Draft. Each of these players is expected to play a significant role in what fans hope is a step up to serious contender status for the Giants in 2023 and beyond.

The draft is seven rounds, though, and the names of the remaining draftees were unfamiliar to many of us. To be sure, some well known players and mock draft favorites were selected by other teams in Rounds 6 and 7: Wide receiver Kayshon Boutte, quarterback Tanner McKee, center Luke Wypler, wide receiver Xavier Hutchinson, running back Deuce Vaughn, running back Zach Evans, guard Andrew Vorhees, and quarterback Max Duggan, to name a few.

But Giants sixth- and seventh-round picks cornerback Tre Hawkins, defensive tackle Jordon Riley, and safety Gervarrius Owens were unknown to most of us until we heard their names called. After the draft ended, the Giants added nine undrafted free agents: Wide receiver Bryce Ford-Wheaton, edge defender Habakkuk Baldonado, linebacker Troy Brown, defensive back Alex Cook, quarterback Tommy DeVito, defensive back Gemon Green, linebacker Dyontae Johnson, tight end Ryan Jones, and long snapper Cameron Lyons. With the exception of Ford-Wheaton, these too are relatively obscure players.

As much as fans and draft analysts agonize over the loss of late picks in trade-ups, the odds are that few of these low draft picks and undrafted free agents will have much of an impact with the Giants. Some may not even make the 53-man roster or practice squad. Scattered throughout Giants history, though, are players who were unheralded coming out of college but had great careers as Giants or at least an isolated great moment that is part of Giants history. Let’s take a stroll down memory lane and remember some of them.

Notable low round Giants draftees

Back in the 1950s, the NFL Draft was 30 rounds long. In the 1960s it was reduced to 20 rounds. With fewer teams in those days, some great players were drafted very low. My favorite Giant as a child, wide receiver Homer Jones, who had three 1,000-yard seasons with the Giants, was selected in Round 20 in 1963. The round before that, the Giants had selected defensive tackle Buck Buchanan. The rival American Football League’s Kansas City Chiefs made Buchanan the No. 1 pick of their draft, though, and Buchanan went on to have his Hall of Fame career in red rather than blue.

The draft was later reduced to 12 rounds, then eight rounds for only one year (1993), and finally in 1994 to the seven rounds we are familiar with today. Compensatory picks were also added to the draft starting in 1994. We’ll start with 1993, though, a draft that yielded one of the Giants’ best low round picks ever.

Jessie Armstead, 1993, Round 8

Starting with Sam Huff and continuing with the amazing trio of Harry Carson, Lawrence Taylor, and Carl Banks on the field at the same time through much of the 1980s, the Giants always fielded great linebackers. In the 1993 draft they found another, drafting Jessie Armstead with the No. 207 pick.

Armstead never received the attention he deserves. He played on up-and-down Giants teams and never won a Super Bowl. Armstead was a first team All-Pro once, second team two other times, and went to five Pro Bowls. He was a ferocious tackler, once compiling 17 tackles in a single game, tied for third-highest in NFL history. He also had 12 interceptions in his career, including one for the winning touchdown in overtime vs. the Cardinals:

Armstead unfortunately is remembered most for a play that didn’t count - his interception return for a TD in the 2000 season Super Bowl vs. the Baltimore Ravens. The play was called back due to a phantom holding call on Keith Hamilton. It would have tied the score 7-7. Probably no one was beating that Ravens team, but you never know...

Dhani Jones, 2000, Round 6

In the 2000 draft the Giants used the No. 177 pick on another linebacker, Dhani Jones. Jones played four years for the Giants, replacing Armstead in the starting lineup after Armstead left for Washington. Two notes of interest about Jones: He had a football camp that attracted the interest of a young David Sills to football. And although Jones was a good value at No. 177, at least one Giants scout was pounding the table that draft for another player who was selected at No. 199:

David Tyree, 2003, Round 6

Tyree had an abbreviated career due to a knee injury he suffered in 2008. Before that he was a backup wide receiver, never catching more than 33 passes in a season, and a superior special teamer, making the Pro Bowl and All-Pro in 2005. In 2007 he only had four regular season catches. He did, though, have some impact in the post-season (Marv Albert’s call, you’re welcome):

Almost forgotten is Tyree’s touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter of that Super Bowl that put the Giants ahead:

Derrick Ward, 2004, Round 7

Ward was the least heralded member of the Giants’ three-headed “Earth, Wind, and Fire” rushing attack in the mid-2000s (along with Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw). But the No. 235 pick was an excellent rusher in his own right. In 2008 he put up 1,025 rushing yards and 384 receiving yards. His most memorable game was the night he rushed for more than 200 yards in an overtime win over the Panthers that clinched home field advantage for the Giants in the playoffs:

Ahmad Bradshaw, 2007, Round 7

Speaking of Earth, Wind, and Fire, Bradshaw was one of the greatest Giants running backs of the Super Bowl era. The No. 250 draft pick had power, elusiveness, heart of a lion, and enough speed to break off big runs. Two-time Super Bowl winner. Had it not been for his foot injuries he might have had a Hall of Fame career. His 88-yard run in the snow punched the Giants’ ticket to the playoffs in 2007:

Bradhsaw’s 1,015 yard 2012 rushing total was the last 1,000 yard season for a Giants running back until Saquon Barkley was drafted in 2018.

Jacquian Williams, 2011, Round 6

Williams had a four-year career with the Giants as a backup and sometimes starter at linebacker. He never intercepted a pass and didn’t quite live up to the hopes the Giants had for him. But he did recover five regular season fumbles and one more in overtime in San Francisco in the 2011 playoffs that sent the Giants to their second Super Bowl against New England:

Tae Crowder, 2020 Round 7

Crowder has developed a negative reputation among Giants fans because he wasn’t good enough to be an everyday starting linebacker on a team that badly needed one. But as the last pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, Crowder gave the Giants more than their money’s worth. Crowder gave the Giants the winning points in their first victory of the Joe Judge era with a scoop and 43-yard score against Washington after a forced fumble by Kyler Fackrell:

His goal-line interception of Jalen Hurts in 2021 was one of most important plays in the Giants’ last victory over the Philadelphia Eagles:

Undrafted free agents

Chase Blackburn, 2005

Blackburn had an eight-year career with the Giants, mostly as a backup linebacker. In the 2011 playoffs, though, Blackburn stepped up. In the Super Bowl, with the New England Patriots leading 17-15 early in the fourth quarter and threatening to go up two scores, Blackburn out-fought future Hall of Famer Rob Gronkowski and intercepted Tom Brady’s pass inside the 10, keeping the Giants’ hopes alive for their second NFL Championship at the Patriots’ expense:

Jake Ballard, 2010

Ballard had one productive season with the Giants, catching 38 passes for 604 yards and 4 touchdowns as a tight end in 2011. His crowning glory, though, was his touchdown catch in the waning seconds in Week 9 to give the Giants yet another come-from-behind upset victory over the New England Patriots and Tom Brady:

Victor Cruz, 2010

Cruz was undoubtedly the greatest Giants’ free agent signing ever. He exploded onto the scene out of nowhere during the 2010 pre-season and went on to have the biggest play of his career against the New York Jets on Christmas Eve 2011 with a berth in the playoffs hanging in the balance:

Cruz had two 1,000-yard receiving seasons with the Giants and just missed a third. He was voted second team All-Pro in 2011 and made the Pro Bowl in 2012. Were it not for his patellar tendon tear in 2014, he might have gone on to set all-time receiving records for the Giants.

Honorable mention

The Giants haven’t really had many notable low round draft pick or undrafted free agent hits in the past decade. It’s worth remembering, though, how often the new Giants personnel and coaching staffs managed to find and use low draft picks and free agents off the street to win games in 2022.

No example was more impressive than the Giants fifth game of the season in London against the Green Bay Packers. Daniel Jones injured his ankle the week before and was a game-time decision. Sterling Shepard, Kenny Golladay, and Wan’Dale Robinson were out, Isaiah Hodgins (himself a waiver claim) was not yet a Giant, and Darius Slayton up to that point had been an afterthought. Saquon Barkley suffered a shoulder injury during the game and left at a key point in the second half.

The Giants fell behind 17-3 in the first half and it seemed that the rout was on. They clawed back to 20-10 by halftime, though, and came out in the third quarter and drove for a field goal to narrow the gap to 20-13. The defense held, and late in the third quarter the Giants mounted a 15-play, 91-yard drive, taking 8:07 off the clock to tie the score. Arguably that drive was the 2022 Giants’ coming-of-age moment, as they defeated the Packers 27-22.

Watch that drive and notice who the players were who made it happen:

  • Matt Brieda and Gary Brightwell were the running backs. Brightwell, a much-maligned sixth round pick from the Gettleman-Judge era who will have a challenge making the 2023 roster, scored the touchdown (his first in the NFL), moving the pile to go in from two yards out.
  • Marcus Johnson, a free agent elevated from the practice squad and consigned to the doghouse after dropping a crucial fourth down pass against Jacksonville two weeks later, caught two passes for 24 yards on the drive.
  • Chris Myarick, another free agent practice squad elevation, and hardly heard from since he caught the winning touchdown pass in Week 1 against Tennessee, caught a pass for 7 yards.
  • David Sills, another undrafted free agent waived by Buffalo in 2019, signed to the Giants’ practice squad, and now probably on his way back to the practice squad, made a crucial third down catch for a first down at the Green Bay 2 yard line.

It remains to be seen whether any of the Giants’ late round draftees or undrafted free agents will play an important role for the team in 2023 or beyond. The odds are stacked against them. In the 30 year span of the modern draft era beginning in 1993, I have identified 10 late-round or undrafted players who had a big impact on the Giants’ fortunes, either as underestimated players who had good or great Giants careers, or as players in supporting roles who had a moment in the spotlight in a key situation. So the odds are about 1 in 3 that one of the Round 6 or 7 draftees or any of the undrafted free agents will have a memorable moment or career in Giants’ blue.

Who is the most likely of these players to show out in the coming season or come up big in an important time? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.