Proud Pierce still has plenty to prove

In a spiral notebook never far from reach, Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce stores the motivation he needs to carry him through his NFL career.

On the pages are the names of the 27 linebackers selected in the 2001 NFL draft. Of course, his is not among them. And as these players are cut or discarded he dutifully scratches away their names with the goal of being the ultimate survivor.

"I want to beat everyone who got drafted ahead of me, to play longer, to be more successful, to have a better career," said Pierce, originally signed by the Redskins as a undrafted free agent from the University of Arizona in 2001. "I want to prove all the critics and draft analysts wrong."

In their quest to make their defense as versatile and mobile as possible, the Giants signed Pierce to a six-year, $26 million free agent deal during the offseason.

If things work out the way he plans, Pierce will turn into one of the most valuable components on a defense being reconfigured to create turnovers and havoc. And the contract will be considered a bargain.

"They signed Antonio Pierce and that's what I'm going to give them," Pierce said. "I believe I'm a balanced player, but the thing that I give most to a team is my knowledge and my anticipation. That helped me a lot in Washington and I'm sure it will help me here."

After playing sparingly in his first three seasons with Washington, Pierce became a starter last season when former Giants middle linebacker Mike Barrow was injured.

"If Micheal didn't get hurt, all Antonio would have likely done was play special teams," said Giants quarterback Tim Hasselbeck, who played with Pierce in Washington the last two seasons.

"But the thing about it is I can never remember a Monday when Gregg Williams [the Redskins defensive coordinator] and Coach Gibbs didn't single out Antonio for how well he played. And because they were counting on him, he also played just about every snap on special teams. He didn't come off the field. When he left there were a lot of people upset the Redskins weren't able to keep him and lost him in the division. He held things together."

Pierce started all 16 games and made 160 tackles with a sack, two interceptions, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble. He returned one of the interceptions for a 79-yard touchdown against the 49ers.

"He's going to be a tremendous addition," said Bill Sheridan, the linebackers coach. "He's got a lot of passion and competitive spirit. He worked himself into a starting position with the Redskins. We're expecting huge things from him and he's done nothing to disappoint us."

While with the Redskins, Pierce developed a close relationship with former Giants linebacker Jessie Armstead. The friendship was fueled by a number of similarities, the most innocent their birthdays (Oct. 26), the most stimulating their personal desire to dog the critics that slighted them on draft day.

"As soon as Jessie came to the Redskins it almost seemed like we complemented each other," Pierce said. "We shared the same birthday, position and little story. He would have been a free agent, too, if the draft was as short as it is now [Armstead was an eighth-round pick in 1993]. I called him first when I was trying to decide what organization to sign with and he spoke very highly of the Giants."

Time has changed much of what NFL teams expect from linebackers. Just as useful as the blunt force provided by Dick Butkus is the side-to-side range that turns linebackers into fleet tacklers and pass defenders.

"The game has changed, in terms of what teams may look for in linebackers," Sheridan said. "It's not as much smash-mouth as it once was, down in and down out. There's elements of it in every game and you need guys who can be depended on to do it, but with most teams using three or four receivers and not making any bones about their intention to throw you have to play defensive back-like linebackers in some situations."

The Giants expect to use a variety of defenses this season, an effort by defensive coordinator Tim Lewis to instill doubt and confusion across the line. Pierce will basically stay put but his speed and versatility will allow him to drop into coverage. He's already had a few interceptions during camp.

"I'm really excited about watching him develop in this defense," Lewis said. "He's got a lot of talent and I think everyone will see that. He's got a lot of athletic ability and is a very instinctive player."

When Pierce was a rookie he impressed former Redskins coach Marty Schottenheimer with his adamant approach to study.

"The biggest thing about him is how smart he is," Hasselbeck said. "Whether it's making sure everyone is in the right spot or making the right calls or recognizing formations or route combinations, you can tell. When you practice against him, you can see him getting to spots where the offense is trying to go. You can tell he's likely seen things already and is determined not to be fooled twice.

Pierce often used lunch to sit by himself and study his notes and playbook. It was a trait that obviously made him attractive to Tom Coughlin, to whom such commitment is a requirement.

"We knew a lot about him having interviewed him and played against him," Coughlin said. "We talked to a lot of people about him and knew well the type of football player he was. I've been very impressed with his intensity. He's a football guy. He's always around the office, always looking at tape. He's always grabbing guys and talking football."

With the Redskins, Pierce would often speak with another great former Giants linebacker, Sam Huff, who would offer encouragement. And slowly the insecurities began to fade.

"Look at the league now," Pierce said. "You need linebackers who can run, just like you need tight ends like Jeremy Shockey [who can run]. You need defensive players who can match up with people like him. You not only need size, you need speed.

While Pierce doesn't know what it was about him that the scouts didn't like, it's clear that he no longer cares.

"There were a lot of reasons, a million reasons, probably," he said. "Start with people thinking I was slow and small. It was just about everything except the heart. I didn't hear much about that or my determination because there is no way they can check what's in your heart or your mind."

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