Giants Rewind: The Best Undrafted Free Agents Since 2001

Jackson Thompson

Just because a player doesn't hear their name called during the NFL Draft doesn't mean they can't make an impact on a team as an undrafted free agent.

Over the years, scores of undrafted free agents have stepped up to contribute to Giants rosters, with some even going on to have productive careers and contribute to championships.

With over a dozen undrafted free agents set to compete for roster spots on the Giants this summer, let's look back at some of the biggest undrafted free agents from 2001 onward (in chronological order) who can serve as an inspiration to those players hoping to launch their NFL careers despite not having been drafted.

S James Butler, Georgia Tech 2005

James Butler came out of Georgia Tech as a two-time All-ACC selection in 2003 and 2004 but went undrafted in the 2005 NFL Draft.

Butler made his mark as a contributor for the Giants early as a rookie as he saw action in all 16 games as his role slowly expanded with time.

By 2007, Butler was competing for a starting safety role, as he would go on to start 12 regular-season games for the Giants.

Then, Butler would start all four games of the Giants' historic 2007 postseason, leading the team in tackles (ten total, nine solo) in Super Bowl XLII against the New England Patriots.

Butler was one of the most underrated players on the Giants defense that season. The signal-caller in the backfield for defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's defense, in 2009, Spagnuolo recruited Butler, then a free agent, for his defense with the St. Louis Rams.

LB Chase Blackburn, Akron, 2005

Chase Blackburn put together a solid career at Akron, earning the All-MAC linebacker title as a junior in 2003. However, a 4.69 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine is believed to have sunk his chances of getting drafted.

The Giant took a chance on Blackburn as an undrafted free agent, where he earned a roster spot and role as a backup linebacker and special teams player.

Blackburn's football intelligence and work ethic earned him a long tenure with the Giants, particularly as a special teams player (he was voted a captain in 2010).

It appeared that Blackburn's NFL career was over after 2010 as he went unsigned heading into the 2011 season.

When injuries left the Giants short at linebacker, they called Blackburn to come back, and he didn't' disappoint, finishing third on the team that year in tackles desire signing with the Giants on November 29.

Blackburn was at his best in the 2011 postseason. He intercepted a pass from Aaron Rodgers of the Packers the divisional playoffs and also picked off Tom Brady of the Patriots in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLVI.

Blackburn is currently the Carolina Panthers special teams coordinator.

WR Victor Cruz, UMass, 2010

One of the biggest undrafted free agent success stories of this century for any team, Cruz's path to the NFL is even more impressive when you consider that due to academic issues, he didn't start playing college football until his junior season at UMass.

Once he did, Cruz set the Minutemen on fire, finishing his career 131 career catches for just under 2,000 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Cruz made the Giants roster as an undrafted rookie in 2010 with a breakout preseason performance against the Jets in which he posted 145 receiving yards and three touchdowns.

A Week 3 hamstring injury ended Cruz's rookie season prematurely, but the following season, he returned bearing his familiar No. 80. A series of offseason departures and injuries put Cruz into the starting lineup, where he racked up 82 catches for 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns, en route to a Second-team All-Pro recognition by the Associated Press.

Cruz, who also caught a touchdown in the Giants' Super Bowl XLVI victory over the New England Patriots, had another productive year in 2012, which set the groundwork for a contract extension.

Unfortunately, he suffered a devastating knee injury in 2014, and would only manage to play one more season (2016) before calling it a career.

Cruz now works for ESPN as a prominent figure in the New York sports media scene.

TE Jake Ballard, Ohio State, 2010

Besides Victor Cruz, tight end Jake Ballard was another key contributor in the Giants 2011 Super Bowl season who had started his NFL career undrafted.

As a reserve blocking tight end at Ohio State, Ballard tallied 377 career receiving yards. While not possessing a good enough resume to be drafted, he did offer ideal size and athleticism, which translated to a much larger role on the Giants in 2011 than he had in four years in college.

After the Giants lost Kevin Boss to free agency following the 2010 season, Ballard and Bear Pascoe were in line to compete for the starting tight end role.

Ballard emerged as the starter tallying 601 receiving yards and four touchdowns in 13 starts that season than he had his entire time at Ohio State.

Ballard's storybook 2011 season had a less-than-ideal ending, as he tore his ACL in the second half of the Super Bowl. In a somewhat surprising move, the Patriots claimed him off waivers the ensuing spring even though Ballard was still rehabbing.

He would also spend time with the Cardinals before retiring in 2014 due to the physical toll the injury had on him. Ballard is a real estate agent in Ohio's home state for the Howard Hanna Columbus location.

LB Mark Herzlich, Boston College, 2011

Mark Herzlich was revered for his successful battle against Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, which he beat in 2008.

Although the cancer treatments interrupted a promising career, Herzlich, who earned first-team All-American honors his junior year in 2008 before his diagnosis, didn't give up on his dream of playing in the NFL.

That call came from the Giants and head coach Tom Coughlin, the one-time head coach of Boston College (though long before Herzlich enrolled).

Herzlich, the winner of the 2009 Disney's Wide World of Sports Spirit Award and the Nils V. "Swede" Nelson Award for sportsmanship, was also an ESPY in 2011 for best comeback athlete and the "Most Courageous Athlete" award recipient from the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association.

His rookie season was delayed due to the lockout in 2011. But it was worth the wait as he made the roster,r primarily as a core special teams player, and also earned a start against the Philadelphia Eagles on November 20, 2011.

Herzlich finished his Giants career in 2017, tallying 173 career tackles one interception and one forced fumble.

LB Spencer Paysinger, Oregon, 2011

Spencer Paysinger was the "other" undrafted free agent linebacker the Giants found in 2011. Despite not having the same star power as his good friend Herzlich, that didn't make Paysinger's contributions any less impactful.

Paysinger finished his career at Oregon as a 13-game starter and an All-Pac-10 honorable mention as a senior in 2010, but it wasn't enough to get him chosen in the 2011 NFL draft.

The Giants came knocking after the draft, and Paysinger did enough in training camp to make the roster. His personal story would serve as the baseline premise for a television serial many years later.

A core special teams player, he led the Giants special teams in tackles with 20 during the 2012 season (16 solo efforts), and also had a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. In 2014, he again led the Giants special teams in tackles with 10, eight of which were solo efforts before departing via free agency to Miami.

Paysinger retired from football in 2017, and pursued one of his other passions, screenwriting. He became a producer on the CW's sports drama All American, a series loosely based on his life and NFL journey.

FB Henry Hynoski, Pittsburgh, 2011

Henry Hynoski had both the perfect name and, later, nickname (Hynocerous) for the fullback position. A battering ram who was cut from the old-school style of play, Hynoski, once a Pennsylvania State rushing champion, was known for his brand of bruising power running and impact blocking.

Hynoski's sophomore season at Pittsburgh (2009) saw him put on a show against Rutgers, just 30 minutes away from his future home at MetLife Stadium. There, he recorded a career-best performance against the Scarlet Knights, with 29 rushing yards on five carries and 36 receiving yards on four catches.

After getting his degree early, Hynoski chose to forgo his final year of college eligibility and entered the draft in 2011. Unfortunately, a hamstring injury during the NFL combine made his already uphill battle to be drafted--NFL teams rarely draft fullbacks, to begin with--even harder.

Meanwhile, the Giants, who were getting ready to move on from Madison Hedgecock, who was not only coming off an injury-shortened 2010 season but who also developed a back issue that forced him to retire after the lockout, signed Hynoski to compete for the role.

Hynoski made the roster, and although the bulk of his duties on offense were that of a lead blocker, he did contribute two career touchdowns, one rushing, and one receiving, and endeared himself further to Giants fans with his special "Hynocerous" touchdown celebration.

One of Hynoski's biggest moments as a Giant came in Super Bowl XLVI when he recovered a Hakeem Nicks fumble that might have cost the Giants their fourth Super Bowl win had Hynoski not made the heroic recovery.

After his career, Hynoski was hired as the head football coach and Dean of Students at Shamokin Area High School, where he'll get to coach the school's home games on a fresh new $440,000 turf field at Kemp Memorial Stadium this season.

DE Romeo Okwara, Notre Dame, 2016

Romeo Okwara came into a high-priced defensive line room as Giants a rookie in 2016, surrounded by the likes of Jason Pierre Paul, Olivier Vernon, and Damon Harrison, but was able to compete for reps and rotate in with the established veterans.

After Pierre-Paul suffered a sports hernia injury against the Steelers on December 4 that would ultimately end his season, Okwara was elevated to a starting role. In his first career start against the Dallas Cowboys during a Sunday night game, Okwara recorded a sack of Dak Prescott.

Okwara started the final four games of the 2016 regular season and the Giants' Wild Card game against the Packers at Lambeau Field. In the first half of that game, he recorded a sack against Aaron Rodgers, the last sack recorded by a Giants player in a postseason game.

Okwara has since gone on to become a contributor on the Detroit Lions' defense and will get to play alongside his younger brother Julian, drafted by the Lions in the third round of this year's draft.