The Giants have released their defensive captain, middle linebacker Antonio Pierce.  After missing the last seven games in 2009 with a bulging disc in his neck, Pierce’s tenure has come to an end in N.Y.  It was unknown whether Pierce would return next season for his sixth year as Giant. The 31-year-old middle linebacker was officially released according to a person close to the team, in a difficult, but hardly surprising move. Pierce was informed of the move this morning and the Giants are expected to officially announce it later today.

In 2007, Pierce was one of the emotional leaders of the team during its charge to the Super Bowl XLII championship. The Giants played that season with a huge chip on their shoulders and an us-against-the-world mentality, which they took largely from him.  Pierce’s play, though, had declined in recent years and there were indications that even if he hadn’t gotten hurt the Giants were planning to explore their options for the future.
Now what?

Middle Linebacker:
Second-year pro Jonathan Goff got a brief tryout as Pierce’s replacement during this past season, though it is more likely the Giants will find Pierce’s replacement in free agency or the draft.

With that being said, it’s time to improve and build the middle linebacker position starting with the draft.  The Giants have always built their defense linebackers and defensive linemen.  Look back at past seasons.  Whenever the Giants have been successful, it’s been because of their front-seven.  I believe a defense can dictate an opposing offense; not the other way around.

Pierce’s status has been in doubt ever since he suffered a herniated disc in his neck that caused him to miss the final seven games of last season. Due to that injury, his age, and the fact that he was due $4.75 million in salary in 2010, he figured to be expendable in the Giants’ defensive overhaul.

Still, the decision couldn’t have been an easy one. After signing a six-year, $26 million contract with the Giants as a free agent in 2005, Pierce almost immediately became the captain and leader of the Giants’ defense. He also was a force on the field at times, recording 107 tackles in 2006.  In my eyes, Pierce joins the pantheon of great linebackers who have worn a Giants uniform.

As notable columnist Matt Vereb wrote a few days prior to Pierce’s release, the G-Men need to make an attempt to draft Alabama inside linebacker Rolando McClain.  A force inside with the versatility of McClain doesn’t come along very often. McClain is 6’4, 255 pounds, and dominated inside for three seasons for the Crimson Tide. McClain won the Lambert Award in 2009, given to the best collegiate linebacker each season, and was also first team All-America and a unanimous selection for first-team All-SEC. McClain would give the Giants a multitalented linebacker capable of playing a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme. McClain has the speed (4.55 40-yard dash) to play inside or outside, and the ability to play the run, drop back into zone coverage, or play man coverage against tight ends and running backs.  There’s no question he would make an immediate impact.

Kenny Phillips has the ability, if he can harness his potential, to be a premier playmaking safety in the NFL.  But as it stands for now, Phillips’ long-term health is an unknown – no matter what the Giants or his agent say. He was diagnosed with patellofemoral arthritis in his left knee before the season, and the condition worsened through the first two games of the 2009 season.  After having surgery to repair his unhealthy left knee, it could be a tough road back and there’s no guarantee he’ll ever be the same.  Phillips is ahead of schedule in his rehab from knee surgery, and won’t start running until the end of March.  Barring a setback, he should be ready for training camp.  Regardless, he needs a partner in the Giants secondary.  Michael Johnson and Aaron Rouse will suffice as the third and fourth safeties, but somebody else has to be brought in to start.

Some notable safeties on the free agent market this offseason include Darren Sharper of the Saints, Green Bay’s Nick Collins, Houston’s Bernard Pollard, Pittsburgh’s Ryan Clark and Tyrone Carter, and St. Louis’ OJ Atogwe.  If I were a betting man, and if betting were legal in this country, I’d wager on Sharper resigning with New Orleans.  Collins and Pollard are restricted free agents, while the rest are UFA’s.  Pollard is a big, fast, physical specimen who would fit perfectly alongside Phillips.  With Pollard excelling at playing up near the linebackers, excelling against the run and playing man coverage against tight ends and slot receivers, Phillips would be able to roam freely in coverage and make plays in coverage.