From Zeroes to Heroes

Thursday, October 16, 2008 |

"Talk about your plenty, talk about your ills,
One man gathers what another man spills."
-- Robert Hunter, Saint Stephen

Much positive media attention has been showered upon Jerry Reese for his outstanding first draft as General Manager of the Giants, and with good reason. Seven of the eight players Reese selected in April, 2007 made significant contributions to last season's Super Bowl-winning team, and these astute selections, combined with his other roster moves, now leave the Giants with a core of young talent primed to make legitimate championship runs well into the future.

Known for years as as one of the game's shrewdest talent evaluators, Reese rose quickly through the ranks of the Giants front office, going from low-level college scout to Director of Player Personnel in less than eight years.
In his four years as DPP (2003-2006), Reese not only coordinated the Giants’ college scouting operation, but was also placed in charge of the team’s draft preparation and the running of the draft room under General Manager Ernie Accorsi.

It was in this position that Reese helped to form the team that would become the champions of the world in 2007, including the selection of "sleepers" such as Justin Tuck (3rd round, 2005), Brandon Jacobs (4th round, 2005), David Diehl (5th round, 2003) and Barry Cofield (4th round, 2006), as well as the scouting and signing of undrafted
rookie free agents James Butler (2005) and Chase Blackburn (2005). And this isn't even mentioning the 2nd round steals of Osi Umenyiora in 2003 (56th overall) and Chris Snee in 2004 (34th overall).

Needless to say, Reese has come a long way.

But beyond his outstanding and much ballyhooed 2007 draft class, his eye for undrafted talent and his ability to acquire and plug veterans into positions of need without overpaying (see: Kawika Mitchell in 2007, Danny Clark in 2008), Reese also deserves high marks for, as another blogger recently noted, finding treasure in other teams' trash.

Consider if you will that Reese signed all of the above-pictured players (Madison Hedgecock, Domenik Hixon, Dave Tollefson and Derrick Ward) either off waivers or off the practice squads of other NFL teams. These players, who have all made significant contributions for the Giants over the past two years, were each considered expendable by seemingly talent-depleted teams such as the Rams (Hedgecock), Raiders (Tollefson) Jets (Ward), and Broncos (Hixon).

Reese saw something in these players that the other clubs couldn't, and through their stellar play he has been rewarded for his prescience.

* * * * *

With all due respect to fan favorites Jim Finn and Charles Way, Madison Hedgecock is the best blocking fullback the Giants have had since Maurice Carthon. In fact, he might be even better. His blocking was absolutely crucial to the success of the Giants running game in 2007 and a big reason why Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw (or Earth, Wind and Fire, if you prefer) are combining to average nearly 6.6 yards per carry thus far in 2008. An absolutely obscene number.

Hedgecock, a converted defensive lineman out of the University of North Carolina, was originally a 7th round (251st pick overall) draft choice of the Rams in 2005. The Rams waived him on Sept. 11, 2007, choosing instead to go with Brian Leonard, a 2nd round pick out of Rutgers they believed (incorrectly, it turns out) was the superior talent at fullback.

The always alert and opportunistic Reese claimed Hedgecock off waivers the very next day and the Giants immediately plugged him in as their starting fullback.
A year and a half later, Leonard is on Injured Reserve for the 1-4 Rams while Hedgecock is playing at a Pro Bowl level, clearing the way for the Giants gifted trio of runners.

I wonder what Steven Jackson,
the Rams' franchise running back, thinks of that brilliant personnel move now?

* * * * *

A converted safety out of the University of Akron, Wide Receiver Domenik Hixon was originally a 4th round (130th pick overall) draft choice of the Denver Broncos in 2006. He spent the entire 2006 season on the Broncos' reserve/non-football injury list with a foot injury and was waived by the Broncos on Oct. 2, 2007, just a few weeks after his special teams collision with Buffalo's Kevin Everett left Everett temporarily paralyzed.

As was the case with Hedgecock, Reese claimed Hixon off waivers the very next day. Hixon went on to play mostly on special teams for the Giants in 2007, enjoying some success and returning a kickoff for a touchdown in the Giants' regular season finale against New England. But it was Hixon's critical recovery of a R.W. McQuarters fumble
on a punt return in the NFC Championship Game in frigid Green Bay that proved his true worth in the 2007 season.

In 2008, Hixon is proving that he can contribute to the Giants offense as well. Subbing for a suspended Plaxico Burress, Hixon hauled in 4 passes for 101 yards and a touchdown in the first half against Seattle on October 5th, before exiting the game with a concussion. He also had one rush (an end around) that went for 15 yards. Through five games, Hixon has 11 catches for 197 yards and that one touchdown, and is now seeing the field with regularity when the Giants decide to spread the field with a four wide receiver formation. His stellar play (which began with a terrific preseason) has made it difficult for Sinorice Moss and Mario Manningham to get on the field, as Hixon has passed them both on the wide receiver depth chart.

What's perhaps most amazing about Hixon's emergence in New York is the knowledge that he came from Denver, where Head Coach/GM Mike Shanahan is regarded as being one of the game's best evaluators of talent. With wideouts like Brandon Marshall, Javon Walker and Brandon Stokely on the Broncos roster last season it's clear that there wasn't much room for Hixon, but still it's curious that a guy like Shanahan would let someone of Hixon's obvious physical gifts go for nothing. But his loss is the Giants gain, and Reese, Coughlin & Co. are happy to have him.

Who knows? Maybe he's got another one of these in his bag of tricks.

* * * * *

Originally a 7th round (253rd pick overall) draft choice of the Green Bay Packers in 2006, reserve defensive end Dave Tollefson was waived by the Packers on Sept. 2, 2006 and then signed to the Packers’ practice squad a few days later. The Oakland Raiders signed him off of the Packers practice squad in January of 2007, but waived him at the beginning of the season and, like the Packers, signed him to their practice squad. A month later, Reese signed Tollefson away from Oakland, adding more pass-rushing depth to what was already a formidable rotation.

While at this stage in his development Tollefson is just a reserve player who isn't always activated on Sundays, he has proven himself to be a valuable addition when called upon. As I wrote in an earlier blog post here at Bluenatic, Tollefson
showed flashes in limited action last season, impressing the Giants coaches with his play down the stretch against both Tampa Bay and Dallas in the playoffs.

"He affected (Tony) Romo on one play and on another play he made a great effort to prevent a first down," Giants defensive line coach Mike Waufle told Mike Garafolo of the Newark Star-Ledger. "He was effective in the fourth quarter in that game."

Tollefson is still a work in progress and struggles at times against the run and against the better left tackles in the league, but he's got a knack for getting to the quarterback and has a motor that won't quit. And though he's been inactive the past few weeks, Giants fans can certainly expect to see him contribute at some point this season.

And the Raiders? They could certainly use a pass rusher or two.

* * * * *

While Reese can't get 100% of the credit for acquiring Derrick Ward (Accorsi was still GM at the time), his signing may well be the Giants' shrewdest scrap-heap acquisition of them all.

Originally a 7th round (235th pick overall) draft choice of the New York Jets in 2004, Ward was w
aived and then signed to the Jets practice squad before the 2004 season opener. A month later, the Giants signed him.

Despite a promising 92-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Washington that first season, Ward was mostly an afterthought in the Giants offense for his first three seasons in blue, as he sat buried on the depth chart behind star running back Tiki Barber and his lesser-light backups, Ron Dayne, Mike Cloud (remember him?), and later the beastly Brandon Jacobs. In fact, Ward had zero rushing attempts in both 2004 and 2006 and only 35 in 2005. But Ward bided his time, practiced hard, hit the weight room, and when he finally got an opportunity to show what he could do in 2007, he played phenomenally well.

Last year, Ward was a revelation filling-in for the banged-up Jacobs (602 yards in 8 games), and was enjoying his greatest game as a pro (154 yards and a score) against Chicago in early December when a broken fibula ended his season.

But through five games this season, Ward leads all NFL running backs in yards per carry with an astounding 7.4. He (Wind) has proven to be the perfect complement to Jacobs (Earth) and Ahmad Bradshaw (Fire), as the Giants boast the league's top rushing offense.

Ward is a huge part of that, and he's earned every accolade he gets. While he's still not the starter, he is a key cog in the Giants offensive machine and with free agency looming in 2009, there's an excellent chance that he'll be starting for someone else (and getting paid for it) next season.

And the Jets? They're still searching for an adequate replacement for Curtis Martin. Since Martin's retirement after the 2005 season, the Jets backfield has been a revolving door of coulda beens, never wases, and if onlys, including Cedric Houston, Derrick Blaylock, Kevan Barlow, Leon Washington and the sometimes brilliant yet maddeningly inconsistent Thomas Jones.

You don't think they could use a guy averaging 7.4 yards a game this season?

* * * * *

Though it's been said a billion times, it bears repeating here: scouting is an imprecise science. One man's trash is another man's treasure. One man gathers what another man spills. Add your own cliche if you care to.

But make no mistake: Jerry Reese knows how to find talent, and Tom Coughlin knows how to utilize it. So don't be surprised if reserve tight end Darcy Johnson (UDFA, 2006) makes an impact at some point this season, or if guard/tackle Kevin Boothe (waived by Oakland, 2007) excels subbing in for an injured lineman. And next year, when Derrick Ward is tearing it up for someone else, don't be surprised when all of a sudden Danny Ware (waived by Jets, 2007) sees some carries and shows himself to be a player of considerable ability.

Don't be surprised because Jerry Reese won't be surprised. He knew what he had in those kids all along.