A year ago, Jason Pierre-Paul could have walked almost anywhere without attracting attention. But after becoming one of the NFL's very best defensive players while helping his team win the Super Bowl, the Giants' third-year defensive end is an attention magnet.
"Everywhere I go people notice me," Pierre-Paul said today before the team's first minicamp practice. "They tell me to take a picture with them, so everybody starts coming. But it's been a great experience. My life has changed, you know. It's been great."
The attention is hardly surprising. Pierre-Paul is an imposing 6-5 and 278 pounds, In 2011, he used his extraordinary physical gifts to record 16.5 sacks, the fourth-highest total in both the NFL and in Giants history. He was a two-time NFC Defensive Player of the Week, the Defensive Player of the Month in December, a first-team All-Pro and a force that at times seemed unstoppable.
Despite the plaudits, and his role in helping the Giants win their second title in five seasons, Pierre-Paul disagrees with those who call him the NFL's best defensive end.
"They can see what I do on the field, but you know, my thing is, I'm not that great player yet," said the Giants' 2010 first-round draft choice. "I know I can be better than I am now. We'll see what happens, man. It's going to be a long season. Great football teams to play, they come at us, we'll come at them.
"There's more guys out there that can do better things than me and are all-around players. I want to be an all-around player that my teammates can depend on. And I won't let them down."
As the Giants prepare to embark on a 2012 season in which they are defending champions, Pierre-Paul's only individual objective is to improve, so he can help the team stay on top.
"In my mind, I have to get better," said Pierre-Paul, who had 12 more sacks as a pro sophomore than he did as a rookie in 2010. "Each year I get better. That's just who I am. Each year I get better and I can't do anything less. I'm not talking about sacks, getting more sacks, but just being that player on the team that your team can depend on you - that's what I'm talking about getting better."
Pierre-Paul believes he can finish with fewer sacks this season and still be a superior player than his 2011 edition.
"It doesn't matter about the sacks," Pierre-Paul said. "You can be triple-teamed, double-teamed, and guys won't leave you alone. Let me give you an example. Michael Vick, no one would leave the pocket wide open or a defensive tackle never leaves a big hole open for Michael Vick because they respect him, he'll take off with the ball. As a defensive player, if you have four guys on you, two guys chip you the whole game, that's taking stress off the whole line. Somebody's got to get free. And I depend on someone on the line to get free if I'm taking on double-teams. I'm putting myself in position for you, getting chipped and everything for you to do your job right. That's knowing as a teammate what you should do, you don't complain about it, you just go out there and play great football. And that's why you can get fewer sacks and be one of the great players too. If they're paying more attention to me, someone's free on the line. We have a great line, someone should get there."
Pierre-Paul was the statistical leader of that line in 2011. He had at least a half-sack in 12 of the Giants' 16 regular season games. Pierre-Paul had five two-sack games. He knocked down six passes, forced two fumbles and blocked a potential game-tying field goal in the waning moments in a victory in Dallas.
His exploits earned him a fourth-place finish in the NFL Defensive Player of the Year voting (Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs won the award; Michael Strahan was the Giants' last winner in 2001).
It's easy to foresee Pierre-Paul finishing first in the voting, perhaps this year, but he seems completely unimpressed with the prospect.
"That's not my goal," he said. "My goal is to help this team win football games and become a great player - like I said, I can have my team depend on me and I can do the job. Just my athletic ability, like running to the ball, and all that, you don't set goals like that, you just play. But me personally, I just play and do what I can do, help my team win, and whatever happens, happens. I don't set goals to have this many sacks a year, or be the defensive player of the year, or just be the main guy on the team. I just go out there and play football. That's just what I do."
To give him the best chance to play better in 2012, Pierre-Paul plans to spend several days at the Timex Performance Center after his teammates disperse following the minicamp. He wants to use even his down time to help him improve.
"After this minicamp, I'm going to go ahead and study the games from last year," Pierre-Paul said. "I'm going to look at every game, highlights and lowlights. I'm looking for what I did wrong last year, what I can get better at, and how things can progress in what I do. That's the thing I look for when I watch the tape, how offensive tackles block me, play me. That's the type of thing I look at and it makes me a better player. I want to see what I can do quicker, what I can do better.
"I've got to be a better player. I can't just be one of those guys that gets lost second time around."