David Wilson, the running back who made the Giants break their rule about running backs

David Wilson. (giants.com)
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A weekly column about what the Giants are doing when they're not playing football.

Conventional wisdom holds that running backs are the most fungible football commodity out there. It’s hard to find a great one, but it’s relatively easy to find one who’s good enough.

Over the past several years, the Giants have adhered to that mantra, and proven it: Ahmad Bradshaw was a seventh-round pick, and Brandon Jacobs was a fourth-round pick. The Giants plugged them in and the running game, notwithstanding a dip last year to the lowest per-carry average in the league, has generally been good.

So if the Giants were ever to break the mold and actually allocate resources to a running back, it makes sense that they would so for a player with star potential.

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David Wilson, the Virginia Tech running back whom the Giants selected with the 32nd overall pick, matches that description.

On the positive side, he’s fast and explosive, and always looks for the big play. He’s got a hip-swiveling, juking, bouncy style. And while at 206 pounds he’s not the most powerful guy around, he has that Victor Cruz-like ability to break tackles with finesse and balance as opposed to brute force.

He was extremely productive in college: He averaged 5.8 yards per carry, and was last year's Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year. He’s also a track star who had the best vertical and broad jumps of any running back tested.

But his best attribute, his ambitiousness for each run, is also what scouts say is his biggest drawback. Scouts say Wilson bounces things outside too quickly, and that he’s not a great between-the-tackles runner. Even his clips show an impatient running style: He doesn’t wait for things to develop and then accelerate. He’s pretty much in insistent full-go mode from the moment he gets the ball.

His pass blocking ability is also suspect, something that must be addressed before he ever plays for a Tom Coughlin-coached team whose most valuable asset is its high-priced quarterback.

The obvious question is whether Wilson really was the second running back on the Giants’ board behind Trent Richardson, the third overall pick. Boise State’s Doug Martin, who is more polished all-around back but a less explosive one, was snagged the pick before by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who traded up to get him, presumably because they thought the Giants would with the next pick.

When asked whether it was “fair to say” that Wilson was the Giants’ second-rated running back, Giants general manager Jerry Reese was slightly less than 100 percent convincing in his answer: “I think it’s probably pretty fair to say that.”

So Wilson’s a dynamic player but an imperfect one at the moment. That’s fine for a rookie first-round running back. What’s not fine is a low ceiling and suspect athleticism. Wilson put any notion of the latter to rest with a YouTube clip of himself doing 21 straight backflips.

This makes Wilson the Giants' second first-rounder in three years to gain renown from a YouTube clip of himself doing backflips: In 2010, Jason Pierre-Paul made a name for himself by doing 14 consecutively. By this measure alone, Wilson will be 50 percent better than Pierre-Paul. That’s not so bad.

 

D.J. WARE, WHO WAS THE PRESUMPTIVE SECOND RUNNING BACK before Wilson was drafted and still might be, said this week that he was ready to move beyond his role as the third-down back last year.

“I want to show them, ‘Hey, I’m prepared for this. I’m ready to be here and do whatever it takes to be a part of this team, part of a rotation.'”

Ware has waited for five years for an opportunity. But maybe the drafting of Wilson was actually a blessing in disguise for Ware. I'm not talking about going to another team and proving himself somewhere else. I'm talking about the four concussions he has sustained during his career, including two last season. And those are just the ones that we know about. All this for a guy with a grand total of 81 professional carries. If he gets the carries he wants this year as Bradshaw’s primary backup, how many more concussions will that mean? It’s tough to put this question to a guy who’s on the verge of realizing his lifelong goal of becoming a consequential N.F.L. player, but will this be worth it in the end?

MAYBE IT'S JUST SABER-RATTLING, BUT BASED on his comments on Wednesday, it’s looking like Osi Umenyiora is willing to hold out from training camp and use every tactic at his disposal to get what he wants from the Giants: A starting job and a big new contract, or a trade to a team willing to give him that.

The money part seems more important than the starting part. Umenyiora mentioned the contracts of Trent Cole and Robert Mathis--two players of similar ability to Umenyiora who each received $15 million signing bonuses this offseason--as the ballpark for what he wants.

Failing that, he told "The Boomer and Carton" show, it’s highly unlikely that he’ll come to training camp.

“I never want to say never, but I seriously doubt that that would be the case," he said. "I seriously doubt that that would happen."

The timing of his comments was obviously significant: If the Giants traded him, it would likely have involved draft picks. The first round came and went last night, but that doesn’t preclude a trade heading into tonight.

In the past week, both sides have indicated that there have been some talks on Umenyiora’s contract, but not much progress.

“We’ve had preliminary discussions, but I don’t think anything is imminent, let’s put it that way,” he told Boomer and Carton.

Boomer and Carton pinned him down a little bit on his contention that he wouldn’t settle for anything less than being a starter. He seemed to back away from this aspect of his gripe, saying, “Whatever the team wants me to do is what I’m gonna be willing to do.”

When Umenyiora was finally healthy late last season, he played nearly as much as Justin Tuck, who is nobody’s definition of a bit player: In the playoffs, Umenyiora was on the field for 63 percent of the Giants’ defensive snaps, compared to 65 percent for Tuck. Dave Tollefson, who got 23 percent of the snaps, is now a member of the Oakland Raiders, meaning that there appears to be plenty of snaps to go around.

Based on Umenyiora’s comments to reporters a little later on Wednesday, it seems like his proclamations that he’s a starting player is less a complaint about his role with the Giants than a proclamation to interested teams that he sees himself as an every-down player and not merely a pass-rush specialist.

“I think definitely people are like, ‘Well, if the team’s only going to put him out there in passing situations then obviously they’re doing it for a reason,’” he said. “I mean, it can’t be the fact that Jason and Tuck are just absolutely monsters against the run. It must be the fact that I’m terrible at this. You know what I mean?”

I’ve argued that the Giants should try to bring back Umenyiora, if possible, because the “third” defensive end is as important a defensive player as any on the field.

But Umenyiora’s asking price of the $15 million guaranteed that Cole and Mathis got may just be an impossible price to meet. The Giants are right up against the salary cap this year, and have substantial payments to worry about in the coming years: Eli Manning’s base salary goes up every year from now until its expiration after 2015. Victor Cruz will be a free agent after this year, Hakeem Nicks and Justin Tuck will be free agents after next year, and Jason Pierre-Paul will be a free agent after 2014. Of all of these players, Umenyiora is probably the lowest priority.

Another thing that impacts the Umenyiora situation is the situation of Mathias Kiwanuka. Kiwanuka’s not the pass rusher that Umenyiora is, but he’s no slouch, and despite the Giants’ constant fiddling with his position over the years, he has evolved into an above-average linebacker. The Giants just signed him to a three-year extension, with base salaries of $2.95, $4.375, and $4.775 million. The full terms of the deal, including any signing bonuses, are not yet known.

It’s unlikely that the signing bonus is a trivial amount. Which makes it hard to see how the Giants can accommodate Umenyiora’s desire for a new contract.

And now begins something that will likely be prolongued and ugly, a “distraction,” in sports parlance. Unless Umenyiora gets traded in the next two days, this will be a developing story for months.

IF YOU, LIKE ME, ARE DOWN WITH J.P.P., AND CAN'T GET ENOUGH of the guy, look at this entertaining interview with ESPN’s Kevin Negandhi on Wednesday.

Some nuggets:

Negandhi asked him how his offseason is going. Pierre Paul got in his product plug with a straight face: “I’m just staying busy, you know, promoting Axe new shower gel, 2-in-1. You know, gets you clean.”

Negandhi asked him if he was nervous during the first round of the 2010 draft, when the Giants made him the 15th pick.

“Honestly I was never nervous. I didn’t really know what was going on. [Agent] Drew Rosenhaus kept talking to me. And I was playing pranks on them, like answering the phone.”

A viewer asked, via Twitter, if there was a former player who he most models his game after.

Answer: Nobody.

It’s a pretty obvious answer, if you think about it. Pierre-Paul has never been known for his reverence for former gridiron greats. The guy had no interest in the game whatsoever before his junior year of high school, when his coach finally convinced him to play after years of hounding him.

And what’s the key to blocking him, Negandhi asked?

“Holding.”

CHARMING BUT A LITTLE STRANGE, THESE SOUTHERN cultural customs: The University of Mississippi changed the speed limit on a road near its football stadium to 10 miles an hour, which was Eli Manning’s jersey number at Ole Miss like it is now. On other parts of the campus, the speed limit is 18 miles an hour, which is what Eli’s father wore when he quarterbacked Ole Miss four decades ago.

Traffic safety is of course a good thing, but 10 miles an hour is really, really slow.

THE GIANTS SIGNED DEFENSIVE TACKLE SHAUN Rogers, the mammoth three-time Pro Bowler (2004, 2005, and 2008).

Rogers is long past his prime, but he’s useful as a rotational player against the run and in goalline situations. Last year, playing for New Orleans, he played on 29 percent of the team’s snaps, and acquitted himself pretty well: According to Pro Football Focus’s play-by-play rankings, he ranked 42nd out of the 88 defensive tackles in 4-3 schemes who played on 25 percent of his team’s snaps. That’s right around where Giants Linval Joseph and Rocky Bernard placed. (Rogers’ signing means Bernard will likely not return.)

DID YOU HEAR? VICTOR CRUZ ISN'T ONE OF THOSE greedy athletes who plays only for money. Rather, as he told CBSNewYork, “I play this game for the sheer love of it.”

Of course Cruz can do and say whatever he wants to about his money, or, more precisely, the money he’s entitled to. And whatever he’s saying now, it’s hard to picture anyone leaving tens of millions of dollars on the table out of some vague sense of loyalty to an organization worth $1.2 billion.

Cruz, by all accounts a nice and charming guy, is trying to burnish his rags-to-riches, happy-to-be-here persona, and that’s fine.

But what’s irksome about these stories is the implicit dichotomy between athletes who play for money and ones who play for love.

We know about the horrible economic circumstances Cruz grew up in. We know that 78 percent of former N.F.L. players are in financial distress two years after their careers end. We know how unceremoniously every N.F.L. team--even organizations like the Giants, which purport to be particularly moral ones--dispense with long-respected stalwarts. We are reminded each week of what playing football for a living does to your brain.

It’s 2012: Let’s get beyond the regressive conceit that professional football players shouldn't care about money.