COMMENTARY | With the annual NFL free agency period set to begin on March 12, 2013, here's a look back at some of the New York Giants' best unrestricted free agent acquisitions of this century, presented in no particular order.
(This list does not include players that were undrafted rookie free agents, e.g., receiver Victor Cruz, or who were acquired off waivers.)
Linebacker Antonio Pierce (UFA-Washington)When linebacker Jessie Armstead's injuries began to take their toll on his abilities, there were doubts about whether his skills and his fiery leadership would ever be seen again in the Giants' locker room.
Fortunately, Armstead, who finished his career in Washington, befriended a young Pierce. During their time together as teammates, Armstead helped refine the young linebacker's preparation, work ethic, intensity, and leadership skills.
When the Giants signed Pierce in 2005, he turned out to be just what the defense needed. He accumulated 537 tackles (322 solo), 7 sacks, 6 forced fumbles, 7 fumble recoveries, and 4 interceptions over 5 seasons. He also had 44 postseason tackles (28 solo).
In 2006, he led the team with 159 tackles (93 solo), a feat he also accomplished in 2007 (116 tackles), and in 2008 (113 tackles). Also in 2006, Pierce became the first Giants linebacker to earn a Pro Bowl berth since Armstead in 2001.
A three-time defensive captain during his stint with the Giants, Pierce was not afraid to challenge his teammates when things weren't going well. He was also known for encouraging his teammates to band together to prove those who doubted them wrong.
After a neck injury cut short Pierce's career in 2009, he joined ESPN as an analyst.
Punter Jeff Feagles (UFA-Seattle)The Giants' punter situation received some stability when the team signed the then-37-year-old Feagles in 2003.
Known as a directional specialist, Feagles and his "coffin corner" kicks oftentimes went unnoticed, yet were integral to the Giants' winning the field position battle. His stellar directional kicking helped contribute to the Giants' magical 2007 Super Bowl championship season in which Feagles, then 41 years, 10 months, and 26 days old, would become the oldest player to take part in a Super Bowl until Matt Stover of the Colts broke the record in 2010.
Before his time with the Giants was over, Feagles, who sold jersey number 10 to Eli Manning after the quarterback was acquired in a draft day trade with the San Diego Chargers in 2004, would earn his second Pro Bowl berth, in 2008.
An iron man who never missed a game in his 22-year NFL career that spanned 352 games (the third most in NFL history), Feagles finally hung up his cleats in 2010 after realizing that his body would no longer allow him to perform at the level he felt he needed to be at in order to have continued success.
Since retiring, Feagles has contributed to the Giants' on-air programming team as an analyst.
Center Shaun O'Hara (UFA-Cleveland)When O'Hara, the former Rutgers product, initially signed with the Giants in 2004, there was a bit of skepticism surrounding the fact that he was part of a Browns' offensive line that, in 2003, had given up 40 quarterback sacks.
However, O'Hara flourished in the Giants' system. He not only went on to serve as the center in 97 of Manning's games, including Super Bowl XLII, O'Hara also earned recognition as a three-time Pro Bowler in 2008, 2009, and 2010.
O'Hara, who developed into a locker room leader, was voted as a team co-captain on offense for the 2007 season, and was one of a dozen or so veterans personally selected by head coach Tom Coughlin to serve on the team's Leadership Council that year.
Unfortunately, O'Hara, who had proven to be masterful in orchestrating the line calls and in getting to the second level, wasn't able to finish his contract due to foot problems experienced in 2010 that forced him to miss 10 games.
In 2011, after the NFL lockout ended, his high base salary combined with some concerns about when he might have been able to get back on the field following ankle and foot surgeries earlier that year, marked the end of the line. He was released by the Giants on July 28, 2011, and formally announced his retirement in September 2012.
O'Hara is currently an analyst for the NFL Network.
Safety Antrel Rolle (UFA-Arizona)Cut by the Arizona Cardinals, who sought to avoid paying Rolle a $4 million roster bonus, the safety signed a lucrative contract with the Giants that, at the time, made him the highest paid safety in the NFL.
While the outspoken Rolle's opinions sometimes rubbed the masses the wrong way--the most famous of which coming during a January 2011 radio interview with a Miami station in which he criticized Coughlin for being too rigid--Rolle eventually began to embrace Coughlin's ways and emerged as a positive voice in the locker room.
On the field, Rolle, who was voted to two Pro Bowls (2009 with the Cardinals and 2010 with the Giants), continued to develop into a strong performer. When injuries struck the defensive secondary in 2011, he accepted new roles to help the defense and in the process, he matured into a leader.
One of his biggest contributions thus far as a leader came after an embarrassing and uninspired 23-10 Giants home loss to the Washington Redskins during Week 15 of the 2011 NFL season. Rolle, one of a few Giants who will speak to the media regardless of the game's outcome, openly challenged any teammates who were battling nagging, yet manageable injuries to step up on the practice field so that the team could accomplish its goal of getting into the playoffs.
His words apparently struck a chord. The following week, many previously injured players who habitually missed practice time leading up to the games only to play in the games themselves, returned to practice. Because of that, the Giants were able to click and go on a streak that saw them win their last two regular-season games, including a critical battle against the Dallas Cowboys for the NFC East title in the regular season finale, right through to Super Bowl XLVI.
Rolle is still a core member of the Giants' foundation, and his presence has given the team something it had been sorely missing since the days of Pierce--a strong leadership voice.
Wide Receiver Plaxico Burress (UFA-Pittsburgh)Despite his short tenure with the Giants, which ended shortly before he was formally convicted on a firearm charge following an incident at a New York nightclub, Giants fans will likely remember the tall, lanky, and speedy receiver for the good he brought to the team.
In addition to providing a legitimate threat with his size and speed, Burress was one of the heroes of Super Bowl XLII, catching the game-winning touchdown on a 13-yard fade pass in the corner of the end zone with 35 seconds left to make it 17-14.
Before suffering an accidental gunshot wound in his right thigh, the result of his weapon accidentally discharging, Burress had had other behavioral issues that resulted in several fines, and two in-season suspensions during the 2008 season, including a four-game suspension in December 2008 for conduct detrimental to the team.
He was placed on the reserve/non-football injury list on Dec. 2, 2008 following his gunshot wound. The following spring, the team severed its ties with the receiver, who was sentenced to a two-year prison term for violating New York's gun laws.
Burress is currently out of football.
Patricia Traina is a New Jersey-based sportswriter who has covered the New York Giants for more than 15 seasons for Inside Football. She is also a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. Follow her on Twitter @Patricia_Traina.
SOURCES: National Football Post, NFL.com, ProFootballReference.com, ESPNNY.com, AZCentral.com