Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Precocious rookies playing prominent roles in Giants' success
By Jeffri Chadiha ESPN.com
Aaron Ross and Steve Smith are among the Giants' rookies who have emerged as steady contributors.
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese wants you to believe his coaches are mainly responsible for the success of his first draft class.
Well, that's not entirely true. It's one thing for coach Tom Coughlin and his staff to get the most of their first-year players, which they obviously have done. But let's not kid ourselves. Reese picked some serious talent last April, and those moves could very well make the difference in this year's Super Bowl.
Just check the roster. First-round pick Aaron Ross has blossomed into a gritty cornerback with the quickness to shut down opposing receivers and the toughness to take on hard-charging runners. Second-round pick Steve Smith has shown a knack for moving the chains with clutch catches in the postseason, while a fifth-round pick, tight end Kevin Boss, has lessened the loss of injured starter Jeremy Shockey.
And then there's seventh-round pick Ahmad Bradshaw. He has become a nice counterpart to bruising running back Brandon Jacobs, and Bradshaw might even be tougher to bring down.
Most teams are happy if their first-day picks show some consistency in their first year. The Giants already have a foundation of youth that could help them prosper for many seasons to come.
"They have done a really nice job of bringing in guys who have played in big games and are used to making big plays," Smith said during Tuesday's media day. "The key thing is that I think we all want to be a focal point of this team's success."
That confidence is one the main qualities that connected this group of players when they entered the NFL. They haven't appeared to be caught up in most of the distractions that can impede a young player's progress -- adapting to life in a new city, or learning to handle the money and fame that come with being a pro athlete -- and they didn't have much interest in talking about their college exploits once they became pros. They came looking for an opportunity, plain and simple. And they found the Giants were more than willing to accommodate them, despite a wealth of veteran experience.
Reese admits he wasn't so certain his draft class would mature quickly. What he did know, however, was that he had seen enough of them to know they had a chance to be special.
"It was easy for me to pick these guys because I was still the pro personnel director when we started evaluating these kids," said Reese, who replaced Ernie Accorsi last January after spending the previous 13 years in the Giants' scouting department. "I studied these kids. I worked them out. I knew a lot about what they could do because I saw them so much."
Looking back on that draft, Reese said all his key rookies displayed characteristics that made them extremely appealing. Ross had been a standout at Texas, where he also returned kicks and helped the Longhorns win a national championship. Smith was just as much a winner during his days at USC. He was that steady possession receiver with soft hands and a knack for getting open. Whenever the Trojans played a big game -- and Smith won two national titles during his college career -- he always seemed to turn up on the highlight reel.
As for the less heralded players, Reese latched onto their intangibles. Boss didn't have access at Western Oregon to the kind of resources bigger schools offer (such as a quality weight room), but he managed just fine. He dominated at the Division II level, and Reese loved that Boss didn't cower in the midst of more high-profile prospects at the NFL combine.
Bradshaw also had a brashness to him that belied his raw skills as a runner, but he was a quick learner when he left Marshall. After winning the kick return job in preseason, he honed his skills, watching film of Tiki Barber's technique as both a pass protector and patient runner.
In all those players -- as well as safety Michael Johnson, a seventh-round pick who started five games earlier this season when injuries depleted the secondary -- Reese saw a level of maturity that gave him great optimism.
"We could see we had a good draft class as soon as we got into training camp," Reese said. "None of these guys were big-eyed once they got in here."
Added Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce: "All these guys came in with the right mentality. Most rookies just want to enjoy the moment of being in the NFL. But they all came in looking for ways to help us win games."
Now comes the hardest part. These rookies have proved they can deal with the speed and the spotlight of the NFL's regular season. They have learned how to thrive in the postseason, where any play can create or crush a team's momentum. The Super Bowl is an entirely different beast, however. It requires a level of focus and discipline you just don't see in your average rookie.
That's exactly why so many of the Giants' first-year players were paying close attention during a speech 15-year defensive end Michael Strahan gave in the days that followed New York's NFC championship game victory over the Green Bay Packers.
Strahan implored his teammates to limit the distractions of the week -- such as loved ones seeking tickets and party promoters offering all kinds of fun-filled nights -- so the Giants could concentrate on the New England Patriots. There will be plenty of time for nightlife after the season ends. The only thing that really matters is leaving Phoenix with the Lombardi Trophy in their clutches.
Well, it's safe to say the rookies heard every word of what Strahan was saying. It's also likely they have repeated it among themselves a few times since that day. Because if there is one thing we have learned from watching the Giants' first-year players, it's that they have a knack for growing up in a hurry. And that's one quality that will be real handy when they hit the field for their first Super Bowl.
Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.