Jason Pierre-Paul has become the fearsome JPP

New York Giants Jason Pierre-Paul (90) during NFL

New York Giants Jason Pierre-Paul (90) during NFL football training camp. (July 30, 2012) (Credit: Hans Pennink)

ALBANY

Jason Pierre-Paul already has proven to be a handful for opponents trying to contend with the Giants' third-year defensive end. He's turning into a load for his teammates, too.

Case in point: In practice Monday, Pierre-Paul lined up at his customary position at right end and began his upfield rush toward quarterback Eli Manning. He promptly was double-teamed by left tackle William Beatty and tight end Bear Pascoe and thrown onto his back.

It was a rare sight, indeed, but one that the two blockers paid for on the next play. This time Pierre-Paul rushed right at the pair, and just as Manning was about to release his pass, Pierre-Paul leaped and swatted the ball away.

It was another in a growing list of "wow" moments for the Giants' budding star of a pass rusher, who at age 23 already is one of the league's premier defensive players and soon could become its best defender.

"I think he should have been Defensive Player of the Year last year," Giants safety Kenny Phillips said Thursday. "I think he's going to win it this year."

If Pierre-Paul continues to grow the way he did last year, when he produced 16 1/2 sacks, forced two fumbles, knocked down seven passes and registered a safety, there's little question he will win pro football's most coveted individual prize for a defensive player.

And if that ascension continues with several more seasons of brilliance, then yes, he will join Lawrence Taylor in the conversation about the greatest Giants ever. And that discussion thus would extend to all NFL players.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves with Pierre-Paul. What we have here is a phenomenal young talent who by all measures has only begun to tap into his incredible athletic gifts. Talk to those around the guy and they'll tell you he has just scratched the surface. Talk to Pierre-Paul himself and he'll agree.

"I think if he continues to work and commit himself the way he has thus far, there's no reason why he wouldn't be another All-Pro selection [in 2012],'' Giants defensive end / linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka said. "He is just at the beginning, and if his approach stays like it has been, there is no limit to his upside."

Pierre-Paul agrees that this is just the beginning.

"I think I can only get better with time and a lot of hard work," he said. "I've been using my athletic ability, but now I'm starting to really learn the game and use things I've learned to get better. Just gotta keep at it and see what happens.

"I feel good about what I can do. Still a long way to go."

Pierre-Paul was a huge reason for the Giants' surprise Super Bowl run, giving their defense a presence that required opposing offensive coordinators to account for him at all times. His brilliance in a 37-34 comeback win over the Cowboys was critical to their late-season success, as he sacked Tony Romo for a safety, blocked the tying field-goal attempt and forced a fumble.

After that game, I asked Kiwanuka if it was appropriate to use LT as a comparison with JPP, and he replied with a definitive yes. And Pierre-Paul's dominant play the rest of the way only reinforced that notion.

Now the trick for the Giants' coaching staff is to keep him on track with his development. And in some cases, that means not giving him too much advice.

"You don't try to coach him too much because you don't want to screw him up," defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said. "He understands the game to a certain degree, but he's just scratching the surface of what he can do and what he can learn and where he can go with his talent. So we try not to overcoach him . . . A lot of him is instincts and athletic ability, and that's a good trait."

Fewell believes the challenge will only get greater moving forward because opposing teams will key on him even more.

"He came in as Jason Pierre-Paul, this defensive end, and now he's JPP, so people are going to study him a little bit more and pay more attention to him," Fewell said. "So he's going to have to be a lot smarter about how he plays the game."

The degree of difficulty goes up as you raise your game, and single-teams become few and far between. But with all that raw talent and a host of other teammates also capable of rushing the passer, the Giants' man-child defensive end with his own set of initials will only get better.

And maybe even join the great LT at the top.