Throughout the Jerry Reese era, he has picked up some notable Undrafted Free Agents in his time. This is my list of the Top 5 UDFA since Reese took over as General Manager in 2007.
Number 5: Larry Donnell
Larry Donnell spent his college career playing at Grambling State University where he started his career as a quarterback then switched to tight end his freshman year. Donnell finished his college career with only 38 Receptions for 432 Yards and 11 Touchdowns. He declared for the NFL draft after the 2011 season.
Donnell was not invited to the NFL Combine but he entered the draft with solid numbers from his Pro Day. He ran a 4.91 40 yard dash and had a 34.5 inch vertical, great numbers for a tight end. Though he posted those numbers, Donnell went undrafted and was not picked up by a team in 2011.
In 2012, Jerry Reese took a chance on Donnell and signed him in the off season. Donnell spent his first year as a mainstay on the practice squad. In 2013, he made the 53 man roster and played mostly on special teams. Donnell finally had his breakout year in the 2014 season.
Donnell bursted on to the scene on a Thursday Night Primetime match up against the Washington Redskins in Week 4. He had 7 receptions for 54 yards and 3 touchdowns in rout to a 45-14 blowout win over the Redskins. Donnell gained national attention and was put on the map. He instantly become one of Eli Manning’s favorite targets this past year with his height and phenomenal catch radius. Donnell finished his breakout year with 63 receptions for 623 yards and 6 touchdowns.
The knock on Donnell is his atrocious run blocking. Donnell finished with a Pro Football Focus (PFF) grade of -12.1 which graded out to be the 5th worst worst among tight ends. Donnell is extremely athletic and makes some impressive catches. He can work on his run blocking skills by getting stronger in the off season. He has potential to be a great tight end for the Giants, he just needs to keep working hard.
Number 4: Jake Ballard
Jake Ballard was a tight end for Ohio State University. His college career went by relatively quietly as he caught only 34 balls for 377 yards during his four year collegiate career. Ballard was known as a leader in the locker room as he was one of the six captains Ohio State had in the 2010 season. Unfortunately, Ballard was never invited to the NFL Combine and only participated in two drills during his pro day.
As a result of his lack of production and pro day numbers, Ballard went undrafted in 2010. As the draft ended, the Giants were quick to swipe up Ballard for their 90 man roster. Ballard was cut in mid-August due to a hamstring injury. They then resigned him in September to the practice squad where Ballard was eventually promoted in November where he played his only snaps of the season.
The 2011 season was Ballard’s breakout season with the Giants. He had his defining game against the New England Patriots where he single handedly help the Giants beat them on the road. Ballard made a helluva catch over a few Patriot defenders while twisting his body. He then went on to catch the game winning touchdown with :15 seconds left in the game.
Ballard was a key contributor in the Giants Super Bowl run in 2011. He was a big target for Eli Manning and made plays when he needed too. Ballard was a strong run blocker with a PFF run block score of 9.2 which helped a weak run game. He finished off the season with 38 receptions for 604 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Unfortunately for Ballard, he tore his ACL during Super Bowl 46. The Giants then cut Ballard the following off season to get under the roster limit. He then was picked up by the Patriots through waivers. Though, Ballard never came back to form and recently retired from the league after a short stint with the Arizona Cardinals.
Ballard is put ahead of Donnell simply because he had clutch catches in meaningful games. The game he had against the Patriots helped the Giants maintain a 2 game lead in the division. He also helped the Giants receivers throughout the season by drawing more coverage on him. Ballard will forever be in the hearts of the Giants organization and their fans. Here is his career highlight package:
Number 3: Henry Hynoski
Henry Hynoski was the fullback for the University of Pittsburgh Panthers. He was redshirted his freshman year and built himself up to be the starting fullback for Pittsburgh. As the starting fullback he was known for his great run blocking ability. He skipped his senior season at Pittsburgh to enter the 2011 NFL Draft.
Hynoski was considered to be one of the best fullbacks in the draft and posted good combine numbers to go along with the hype. Unfortunately for Hynoski, he suffered a hamstring injury during the combine which hindered his draft stock drastically. Hynoski of course, went undrafted and became a free agent. Jerry Reese was again, quick to swipe him up.
Hynoski was automatically given the position of starting fullback as the Giants cut an ailing Madison Hedgecock. Thrusted into the starting role, Hynoski did his best to keep pace with the Giants offense. He did help the Giants, coming up with an overall PFF pass block score of 2.4, though he had a negative run block score of -1.0 he held his own. Hynoski was solid first year fullback and earned his first career Super Bowl ring.
In the 2012 season, Hynoski improved himself as a player and became one of the best fullbacks in the league. He was ranked 8th in the league at the position posting an pass block score of 2.9 and a run block score of 2.4. He was solid contributor to an otherwise mediocre run game. In Week 17 of the season, he finally scored the first touchdown in his career where he unleashed one of the best touchdown dances of all time.
In the seasons to follow, Hynoski hurt his shoulder in the 2013 season which sidelined him for the majority of the year. The Giants then brought in fullback Jon Connor of the New York Jets, who would go on to play extremely well. This lead to a heated competition between Hynoski and Connor in training camp for the 2014 season. In the end, Hynoski beat out Connor and won his starting position back.
Hynoski had an amazing bounce back season in 2014 where he finished at the 2nd ranked fullback in the league. He has an outstanding run block score 6.2 and overall score of 6.4. Hynoski has possibly solidified the fullback position for the Giants for the immediate future. His importance on the team cannot go unnoticed.
Number 2: Will Hill
This will sadden any Giants fan. Will Hill was a safety for the Florida Gators. Hill had a great college career at Safety as he ended with a total of 144 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 4 interceptions. Coming out of college, Hill was ranked 14th out of the free safeties coming into the draft. He did impress at the NFL combine running a 4.64 40 yard dash, had a 34.5 inch vertical, and had a 10.5 foot broad jump.
Hill went undrafted and for a good reason, character concerns. Jerry Reese took a chance and signed Hill as an undrafted free agent following the draft. Hill was impressive in the 2012 off season, as he looked like a starting safety out there in the preseason. He made big hits, looked to have great instincts, and had a great understanding for what was going on. Things were looking up for Hill, until he got hit with a four game suspension for using Adderall. He came back Week 12 against the Packers and played every game from there on out and finished up a subpar season.
Before the 2013 season even started, Hill was hit with another four game suspension for again, violating the league’s substance abuse policy. When Hill came back Week 5 of the season, he immediately exploded onto the scene. He made a horrible Giants secondary ten times better with his play. He looked like a complete animal out there, making fantastic hits and had a killer instinct for the ball. Hill had so much talent that he was already developing into one of the top safeties in the league. He finished with an overall PFF score of 15.9 with an exceptional grade of 10.4 in pass coverage. Hill finished 3rd in the league at safety.
Things looked great for the Giants secondary. They had Antrel Rolle and Hill manning the safety spots and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Prince Amukamara, and Walter Thurmond at the corner sports. It was shaping up to be potentially one of the best secondaries in the league. Then, Will Hill was slapped by the league again. Hill was suspended for the first six games of the 2014 season for once again, violating the league’s substance policy. The Giants subsequently cut Hill. Three strikes and he was out.
Hill shot himself in the foot repeatedly. He could not stay out of trouble and the Giants understandably could not let his off the field issues keep sliding. Most are bitter about the Giants letting Hill go but unfortunately that’s life in NFL. He needed to be taught a lesson and Hill even said himself “I would have cut myself too”. One of the most talented safeties the Giants have had in a long time was gone. But, he will still go down as one of the great finds Reese has had.
Hill went on to have a great season in Baltimore when he came back from his suspension. He had a huge pick six of Drew Brees throw to Jimmy Graham which propelled the Ravens to beat the Saints. Honestly, it does hurt watching him play for a team that’s not the Giants but he had to get away from New Jersey. He looks to be staying out of trouble… for now.
Number 1: Victor Cruz
What a surprise! Victor Cruz was the star receiver the University of Massachusetts Minutemen. Even though Cruz didn’t play a single snap until his Junior season, he managed to propel himself to fourth all time on their reception list with 131 receptions. Cruz declared for the draft in 2010 where every single team overlooked him, except one.
The day after he draft, Jerry Reese signed Cruz. Cruz immediately went to work and competed for playing time. In the 2010 preseason, Cruz had his humongous break out game against the Jets. He caught 6 passes for 145 yards and 3 touchdowns and absolutely torched the Jets second team corners. This brought national attention to Cruz as he made some outstanding catches and looked to play better than some of the starters in the league. Cruz made the roster but barely contributed and then he went down for the year with a hamstring injury.
In 2011, former Giants star slot receiver Steve Smith bolted for the Philadelphia Eagles and that led Cruz to get the fourth spot on the depth chart. After having another great preseason, Cruz was ready to take on the NFL. Cruz had very little opportunity in the first two weeks of the season as he was behind Mario Manningham and Domenik Hixon. After both players went down with injury, Cruz stepped up. He absolutely torched the Eagles secondary and that game kick started his career.
Later that season, Victor Cruz propelled the Giants over the cross town rival New York Jets as he scored a 99 yard touchdown that completely shifted the momentum of the game. Here is the famous play:
This helped to send the Giants straight into the playoffs and they never looked back. Cruz went on to score his first Super Bowl touchdown against the Patriots. He finished the season with 82 receptions for 1,536 yards and 9 touchdowns.
After his breakout season, Cruz went on to have another great season in 2012 where he had 86 receptions for 1,092 yards and 10 touchdowns. That earned him a lucrative 5 year, $43 million contract in the off season.
The Giants offense was just terrible in 2013, but Cruz finished just shy of 1,000 yards finishing with 998 after an injury shortened his 2013 season. In 2014, Cruz tore his left patellar tendon during a week 6 games against the Eagles. There are rumblings from doctors that he will never be the same again, but Cruz maintains that he rehabbing strong and will be back as close to 100% as he can.
Overall, Victor Cruz has to be close to being one of the best undrafted free agent finds the league has had in a long time. He helped the Giants receiving core become a great one. Now paired with Odell Beckham Jr., hopefully at as healthy as he can be, the Giants receiving corps as the potential to become the most dangerous in the league.
Here is the famous moment when Victor Cruz made a name for himself and some highlights from back in 2011.