COMMENTARY | This time of year, many NFL fans are focused on the draft, particularly what big-name prospects can provide help to their favorite teams.
But sometimes the brightest stars aren't those who end up being drafted at all. An NFL team that does their homework thoroughly can usually supplement annual personnel with some undrafted free-agent gems, some of whom go on to have long, productive careers with the club that takes a chance on them.
The New York Giants is one such team that does this homework and that has uncovered numerous of these "gems" who have, over the year, become part of the team's fabric. Here's a look at five undrafted free agents signed from 2001 onward; they've proven that you don't have to be a draft pick to be a part of the team's success.
Guard/Center Rich Seubert, 2001, Western Illinois: The very definition of a blue-collar guy who brought his lunch pail to work every day, Seubert made such an impression on the coaching staff that legend has it that as a rookie, he was personally introduced to the late Wellington Mara by the team's offensive line coach.
Seubert, who became a fixture at left guard and then later in his career at center, was, of course, in the middle of the officiating controversy in the 2002 NFC Playoffs against the 49ers when the officials failed to recognize him as an eligible receiver.
Controversy aside, Seubert's gritty nature and determination brought him back from a severely fractured right leg suffered in October 2003 for which he underwent five surgeries before finally returning to the field in December 2005, looking no worse for the wear, until a career-ending knee injury during the final game of the 2010 regular season did him in.
Receiver Victor Cruz, 2010, UMass: The Giants decided to take a flier in summer 2010 on a little-known receiver who had a breakout performance against the Jets during the preseason. However, a hamstring injury landed the man who made the salsa part of the Giants' football Sundays on injured reserve.
The following year, Cruz struggled in training camp, showing inconsistency in hanging on to the ball, and was believed to be on the bubble during final roster cuts. Luck was on the Giants' side though, as they took a chance with keeping him, and after a short-lived flirtation with veteran receiver Brandon Stokely, Cruz had his "coming-out party" against the Philadelphia Eagles and one of the supposed best cornerbacks in the NFC that season, Nnamdi Asomugha.
Linebacker Chase Blackburn 2005, Akron: Like most young players, fan-favorite Blackburn began his pro football career as a special teams player and a jack-of-all-trades who could play any of the linebacker positions. While he's not the most athletically gifted player, what Blackburn lacked in skill, he more than made up for in intelligence.
When the Giants tried to move away from him in 2011 in order to get younger, they soon found themselves bringing him back after injuries began to affect the unit. Blackburn took control of the middle linebacker spot and held on to it for 2011 and 2012, earning the trust of defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, who often praised the veteran for his ability to get the defense lined up. Blackburn's career with the Giants came to a close last month when he signed a reported two-year deal with the Carolina Panthers.
Tight End Jake Ballard, 2010, Ohio State: When the Giants lost tight end Kevin Boss to the Oakland Raiders after the lockout, a mild sense of panic set in regarding the tight end position. Fortunately, however, Ballard built on his time spent on the team's practice squad in 2010 and contributed 38 receptions for 604 yards and 4 touchdowns during the team's 2011 Super Bowl season before a knee injury in the Super Bowl and a backfired plan to slip him through waivers only to lose him to the New England Patriots ended Ballard's Giants career.
Fullback Henry Hynoski, 2011, Pittsburgh: The only rookie to make the starting roster on offense in 2011, Hynoski first caught the Giants' eye with his strong work ethic and commitment toward improvement. As the man nicknamed "Hynocerous" showed an increased knowledge of the playbook, his confidence also increased, and it wasn't too long before he was starting to punish linebackers all the way through to the Super Bowl.
In 2012, his second season, he got even better, making even more of the NFL's best linebackers non-factors. If that weren't enough, Hynoski showed that he could be a receiving threat out of the backfield, capping an impressive audition with his first career touchdown in the team's final game of the 2012 regular season with his now-famous "Hynocerous" dance.
Patricia Traina is a New Jersey-based sportswriter who has covered the New York Giants fulltime for 16 seasons for Inside Football. She is also a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. Follow her on Twitter @Patricia_Traina.
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