EAST RUTHERFORD - The Giants last week selected defensive linemen with their first two draft choices and the veterans they are joining know exactly the challenges and pressures the youngsters will face. For Jason Pierre-Paul and Linval Joseph, they include learning a new defense, facing opponents larger and stronger than they are accustomed to and delivering the correct breakfast order on Saturday mornings.
Don't underestimate the importance of that last responsibility. For many years, the defensive line tradition has been that the rookies buy breakfast the day prior to a game. Osi Umenyiora did it in 2003, Justin Tuck in 2005 and Mathias Kiwanuka and Barry Cofield in 2006. Now Pierre-Paul and Joseph will seek to serve their new friends on the D-line.
"We have two rookies this year, so we should have some pretty good spreads," Kiwanuka said this week. "That's just part of it. Every rookie goes through it. It's not just donuts, but breakfast sandwiches. You have to take the orders and make sure they get them right."
"I will just say this - I bought a lot of donuts," Tuck said. "Actually, a lot of donuts and breakfast platters. Everything is in fun and with respect. I wouldn't even call it hazing. I would call it just paying your dues. We are not tying any guys up to the goal posts or flattening their tires."
Of course, the Giants organization and its fans are more concerned with the rookies' on-field production than their breakfast delivery. Like all young players entering the NFL, they face a sharp learning curve and an intense period of adjustment. Both Pierre-Paul and Joseph entered the draft after their junior seasons – as did Tuck – so they don't have as much collegiate experience as many other first-year players.
No one better understands what lies ahead for the top two draft choices than the players who previously walked the same path.
"The biggest adjustment that you have to make is that you are not necessarily going to always be the biggest and strongest," said Cofield, who started all but one game in his first four seasons with the Giants. "Down on the field the level of competition obviously increases and the speed of the game increases. So that is probably the biggest transition. You are not going to be able to overpower people as much as you might have been able to do in college. Everyone is strong, everyone is talented. So things like pad level and technique and intelligence comes into play more so than in the college game."
"I think for any player the biggest adjustment is usually going to be physical," Kiwanuka said. "The speed of the game is something you have to get used to. You have to be able to get the snaps and get the reps and get out there and get more experience.
"There's a little bit of a whirlwind every step of the way. There are new experiences, things you have never been through. And there are not a lot of people who have been through them to guide you through it. So once you get through the draft, once you get through all the press stuff you have to do and come to rookie minicamp and training camp and the preseason games are another step and then you actually get out there and walk into the stadium for the first time, there are a lot of wow moments. But it's all fun."
The Giants' defensive linemen have long had an unofficial mentoring program. Strahan – a seven-time Pro Bowler who holds the franchise record with 141.5 sacks – always passed on the wisdom learned in his 15-year career. Two of his most talented protégés, Umenyiora and Tuck, have been Pro Bowlers. When Kiwanuka arrived he learned from all three of them.
"I was lucky, because I had Strahan and I had Osi here," said Tuck, a third-round draft choice in '05. "I had the best of both worlds, because I had an old mentor and a young one. I was ears wide open, eyes wide open. It took a little bit of the burden off me because I had to just sit back and watch them and see how they did it. It was kind of easy for me to copy-cat that."
That's not to say the two star ends went easy on Tuck. Far from it. The veterans rode him hard, as they would any rookie.
"I didn't know anything," Tuck said. "They used to call me 'No arms Tuck' because I wasn't using my hands. I was just going off of speed and athletic ability. Strahan would say, 'Go take that rep.' At first, I was thinking, 'Ah, he is just being lazy.' But in the long run I said, 'You know what, that rep did help me because it was something that he already knew was going to happen. I haven't seen that formation before or something like that.' He knew that and he would throw me in there. I thank those guys for that now."
The first pro training camp can be intimidating for a rookie, but Cofield said the presence of so many accomplished veterans made it easier for him to make the transition from Northwestern to the NFL. And he believes the current veterans will similarly help Pierre-Paul and Joseph.
"It depends on the locker room and this is definitely a receptive locker room," said Cofield, a fourth-round selection in 2006. "I have definitely heard from friends that not all locker rooms are as receptive to rookies, especially high draft picks. But in this locker room, I don't think it will be an issue. Our D-line will welcome them with open arms. We are trying to get better from last year. Whoever can help us, we appreciate the help."
"As a first-round pick there are going to be high expectations," Kiwanuka said of Pierre-Paul. "But once you get past that, everyone here is respectful. We understand the situation. Having a guy like Pierre-Paul on our team is only going to make us better. We understand that."
Despite the all-for-one attitude, the youngsters will still be on the receiving end of constant barbs. They are, after all, rookies. A little body armor and a healthy sense of humor have been mandatory attributes for survival in the defensive line meeting room, where no one emerges unscathed. And woe the rookie lineman who flubs one of those breakfast orders.
"We are definitely going to give them a hard time," Cofield said. "That's life. But it will all be in good fun. And if they have a good personality and thick skin, I think they will flourish."
"(Pierre-Paul) can make it easier by just taking everything in stride," Tuck said. "If we get under your skin, we are not going to stop, we are going to make it even worse. So those guys who can roll with the punches and throw some punches back are the kind of guys that will fit in well around here."
Insults aside, the veterans never lose sight of what's most important, and that is to help develop the rookies. The better the young players get, and the faster it occurs, the more the team benefits. Tuck seems particularly excited about working with Pierre-Paul, the ultra-athletic end who was the 15th selection in the draft.
"Obviously, everyone knows how athletic he is and how big the upside is," Tuck said. "Hopefully, I can kind of take him under my wing like old man 92 did when I was here. That benefitted me, and hopefully I can do the same for him.
"I'm a little younger than Strahan was when I was a rookie, so I don't know if I'm going to be as lenient. But I'm excited about getting in this kid's brain and seeing how he approaches a football game. And hopefully I can have a little effect on how he does in the future."