The Giants announced today that they have cut Antonio Pierce. It's not a big surprise, at least if you've been following this blog. However, the timing of the cut is very instructive, IMHO. Since this is an uncapped year, there was no risk for the Giants to bring Pierce to camp, see what he has left and cut him in August or September if they then saw he had nothing left or that they had a better alternative to take the position over. In the past, the reason to cut a player this early would be to make cap space available so you can sign free agents at the beginning of the FA signing period, which begins on March 5th. Since there will be no salary cap this year, clearing cap space to sign FAs before the draft is completely irrelevant. It is possible that Pierce had a roster bonus due as part of his 2010 compensation package; I am not sure about that. Nevertheless, the fact that the Giants chose to cut ties with Pierce now before they even see whether they have a better player available and without the motivation to clear salary cap space, shows just how much his play has declined in the team's evaluation.
Frankly it's hard to disagree with their evaluation. Pierce was never a great physical talent. He was average size, slightly above average speed and made his living as a capable MLB by being very smart, an excellent preparer and great at film study of the other team's tendencies. He was quick to the ball with his good reading of the opposing offense and slightly-above-average speed. However, when his speed clearly declined in the last season-and-a-half he became a liability on defense. He did pump everyone up, was a good emotional leader and was an on-the-field coach for the defense. But when you can't run anymore and it's your one distinguishing physical characteristic, it's time to pack it in.
I blogged during the playoffs about how much speed I saw at the LB position from the good defenses in the playoffs and how lacking that was on the Giants. This came even more into focus in the Superbowl on one critical play that turned the game in favor of the Saints. Colts had the ball at the end of the 3rd quarter right after the Saints kicked a FG to make the score 17-16. Their drive started at their own 11, they moved the ball out to the Saints 33 and it was now early in the 4th quarter - about 11:00 minutes left in the game. Colts had a 3rd and 11 from that spot. They had 3 WRs on the field and Manning read the Saints defense accurately as a cover-3, with two safeties covering the outside of the field and the MLB running down field and covering the deep middle. Colts called the perfect play - a seam route right up the middle, with young, speedy WR Collie matched up 1-on-1 against the Saints MLB. Manning threw the ball right down the middle, a very good throw giving the WR a chance to make a play on the ball. Running down the middle to cover the WR was MLB Jonathan Vilma and he stayed with Collie step for step for 35 yards and made a great play to break up the pass. The reason it was such a critical play is obvious - it looked like a sure TD for the Colts and instead, they were stuck with 4th and 11 and attempted a 51 yard FG which Stover missed. Instead of being up 8 or 4, they were up only 1 and you know how the rest of the game unfolded. Saints scored a TD to go ahead and then got the INT-TD to ice the game.
Vilma has speed at that position that the Giants simply don't have and that is needed in today's pass-oriented game. No doubt, the Saints defense expected a TE to run up the seam in the middle of the field, which would have given the average MLB a better chance to cover. The fact that Vilma ran up the field with a speedy WR instead of a TE, shows how fast he is and emphasizes how lacking the Giants are in speed at that position. If this had been the Giants defense, Collie would have cleared the LB 15 yards from the line of scrimmage and would have been open by at least 5 yards at the goal line. Instead, Vilma stayed with the WR 35 yards down the field. Giants need speed at the LB position and Pierce does not have it anymore. The problem for the Giants is - they may know what is broken on the defense, but do they know how to fix it. Even if they know how to fix it, will they acquire the right players to do so. They need 2 LBs, 1 S (two if Phillips does not come back healthy, and an upgrade at the DL, at both the DT and the DE position. Some of these players may already be on the team - maybe Canty and Alford come back strong from injury and Cofield returns to form helping the DT situation. Maybe Goff and Kehl are the answers at LB. I don't think all of these things will work out for the Giants and they need to upgrade the defensive personnel this off-season.