Making a name

Michael Lewis, Fred McAfee and the Saints tried tricking the Giants on the opening kickoff last week at Giants Stadium. They thought that by attempting an unconventional reverse that they'd catch the Giants napping and at least get great field position to start what was already an emotional game.

But once Lewis handed the ball to McAfee, rookie safety James Butler abruptly wrapped up the kick returner, allowing veteran linebacker Nick Greisen to gain a head of steam, hammer McAfee and jar the ball loose. The ball barely reached the turf before rookie linebacker Chase Blackburn grabbed it to give the Giants the ball at New Orleans' 10-yard line, just seven seconds into an eventual blowout win.

This was just the type of special teams production Tom Coughlin hoped he'd get when he decided to keep Butler and Blackburn on the roster. Neither Butler, a two-time first team All-ACC selection at Georgia Tech, nor Blackburn, a standout at the University of Akron, were drafted five months ago. They joined North Texas' Adrian Awason, a defensive end, to compose a rare trio of undrafted free agents to make an NFL roster in the same season (two apiece made the 53-man rosters of division rivals Philadelphia and Washington).

"It's definitely unusual," Blackburn said. "We heard about that from a lot of people. They congratulated us. Usually, you have one maybe that makes a team. But to have a rookie free-agent class like this is special. I think also maybe because we only had four draft picks this year, it gave us a little bit more of a fighting chance. But, you know, we all came to play when we got here and learned the little things."

Blackburn backs up Antonio Pierce, a high-profile free-agent acquisition. Butler plays behind promising second-year strong safety Gibril Wilson and veteran Shaun Williams. And Awason is listed behind Michael Strahan, one of the finest defensive ends in league history, on the team's depth chart.

Thus they all realize that, like most rookies, they must make their immediate impact playing special teams.

"Obviously, everyone's goal is to play on offense or defense," Blackburn said, "to play the position that you were brought in to play. But special teams is definitely a niche you can make for yourself and use to pay the bills."

Realizing this, Blackburn sought out Patriots backup linebacker Matt Chatham after the Giants' preseason game on Sept. 2 in Foxboro, Mass. Chatham originally signed as a rookie free agent with St. Louis in 1999, but has stuck with the Patriots the last five seasons primarily because of his special teams production.

"I went head-to-head with him most of the game, playing all the special teams," said Blackburn, who wasn't signed until six weeks after the rest of the Giants' rookie free agents this year. "He gave me a little encouragement and told me it was a hard road to travel. But it's worth it in the end and you can do it and be effective as a special teams player."

Butler can look a couple lockers over at fellow safety Brent Alexander for his own proof of how hard work can create a lengthy NFL career. Alexander originally signed with Arizona as an undrafted free agent in 1994, but has been a starter for his entire 12-year career. Actually, Butler wouldn't have to look far in any area of the locker room for further evidence of draft positions being overvalued once a player begins his career.

Thirteen of the 53 Giants on their current active roster were not drafted. Three of those players start (Alexander, Pierce and center Shaun O'Hara). Punter Jeff Feagles and kicker Jay Feely were not drafted, either.

Butler won't take anything for granted, though, not after sweating out the final cuts.

"I guess guys in our rookie class just went out and did what we had to do to make the team," Butler said. "We kid every now and then (about three rookie free agents making the team), but the reality is if you don't go out there and do what you're supposed to do tomorrow, you're going to be out the door. So that puts everything in perspective."

Awasom wasn't active for the Giants' first three games, but he's hoping to get the special teams opportunities that Butler and Blackburn have been able to exploit. Meanwhile, Awasom will keep his eyes and ears open as he tries to learn from Strahan and Osi Umenyiora, whom Awasom credits with helping him through the rigors of his first NFL training camp.

"I feel I'm in a great position because I get to watch film on one of the greatest ends to ever play the game," Awasom said. "I just sit back, listen to some of the things he says, you know, and I try to ask him as many questions as I can. But it's good to learn from other defensive linemen as well. Different people are good at different things. Strahan is good at a lot of things, but other people are good at some things. I just learned to ask a lot of questions and sit back and watch. I don't have to talk to them a lot, but I just watch how they react to different things."

The three-time All-Sun Belt Conference performer hopes all of his studying eventually leads to a contributing role on defense, one he'll have to fight for with fellow rookie defensive ends Justin Tuck and Eric Moore around.

"Now it's like another uphill battle," Awasom said. "I'm just trying to get on the field. I'm trying to listen up, pay attention in defensive meetings and go through the scouting reports, trying to do my part, handle my load. I'm learning the offenses and understanding what they're doing and learning the defense and understanding what we're doing. It's just another uphill battle. It's always an uphill battle. I guess it just doesn't stop."

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