This is the 11th in a series of scouting reports on 15 key players who are slated to become free agents — restricted or unrestricted — March 5, unless they are re-signed or franchised before then.
News: The Giants cut Antonio Pierce after five mostly great seasons in New York, creating a void at middle linebacker. Although Pierce was the heart and soul of the Giants' defense during that stretch, his play dropped off, and he suffered a disc injury that has his health sitting as a major concern. Pierce has said he will play, but you can bet that teams interested in adding defensive leadership will want a clean bill of health first.
Notes: With nine seasons under his belt, Pierce had remained very consistent until last season. He averaged more than 100 tackles in his first four seasons with the Giants, and he consistently made plays in the passing game. But through nine games last season before the injury, Pierce made only 55 tackles and often was out of position on a defense that eventually allowed the third-most points in the NFL.
Positives: Pierce has exceptional anticipatory skills, able to diagnose opposing offenses based on formation, trends, time of game and small keys that present themselves only to the most diligent film students. Pierce is like a coach on the field, able to line up players, make adjustments and fire up a tired unit. He often has been a three-down linebacker with good instincts in the passing game.
Negatives: Last season was the first time that Pierce really showed the wear of nine seasons on his body. He had a slow first step, often was out of position and doesn't possess the bulk to disengage from offensive linemen now that his feet as not as quick. He'll have to show that he's medically well and can continue to hold up. Pierce no longer will be expected to play 60 snaps per game on defense; he's likely a first- and second-down run stopper at this point if he does get back on the field.
Risk factor: High. Mentally, Pierce can handle the duties of defensive captaincy, but he's not likely to withstand the pounding of another season as a 16-game starter. There were some who thought his disc injury was serious enough that it could be career-ending. Pierce says he'll be back, but he might not get a shot to sign a contract until later in the offseason once needy teams start coming his way again.
Monday: Chargers OLB Shawne Merriman
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