The most amazing aspect of the early stage of Jason Pierre-Paul's career is that, for the most part, he had no idea what he was doing. Relatively new to football, unpolished from a vagabond college career, the player the Giants routinely referred to as a "freakish athlete'' simply stepped onto the field and shredded offenses on instinct. Like a lion taking down antelope, he had little thought about why he did it or how he did it. He simply did it.
But during the last few years, Pierre-Paul has not only undergone a physical change -- back surgery in June 2013 cost him production last season but is expected to pay off with less pain and more durability in the long run -- but a mental one. He's become self-aware. Now, instead of purposely avoiding extra video sessions that served only to cloud his mind, he's engaging in them to better understand how to use his tools. He still has the instincts and the athleticism, but now the lion has a new tool.
Latest Giants stories
And he hopes that will make him better than ever.
Better than even the 2011 version who had 161/2 sacks and 86 tackles and seemed poised to become a regular NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
Not only is Pierre-Paul enlightening himself, but with veteran mentors such as Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck no longer around, he's become an instructor.
"There's a mental part of the game that I focus on,'' Pierre-Paul said. "It's not natural ability anymore for me. It's more mental. I'm in the meeting rooms more often. I teach some of the guys stuff that I've learned.''
No one will be nicknaming Pierre-Paul "The Professor'' anytime soon. He still maintains that on the field, "the less thinking you do, the better you play.'' But he's evolved into a leader in the defensive line room, partly out of necessity.
"Tuck's always been the talker,'' Pierre-Paul said. "When we're doing something wrong, he'll come to us, which I am too now . . . If I see a person doing something wrong and I can help him out, that's what I'm going to do. When we're in the meeting rooms and I see a guy doing something wrong, I'll tell him.''
"Since I've been around, I view him as a leader,'' said fellow defensive end Robert Ayers Jr., who joined the Giants as a free agent during the offseason. "He's a competitive guy, a tone-setter. He bangs. A lot of times, the media thinks that vocal guys are leaders. I respect guys who come out there and grind and bust their behinds every day. That's what he does. To me, that's a leader.''
Of course, for all of the cerebral work that he's done getting ready for 2014, Pierre-Paul's greatest asset remains his physical abilities. Those can't be taught.
"I know when I played against him [in practice], he was one of the greatest defensive ends I ever played against,'' said Giants tackle Charles Brown, who spent a good deal of training camp working against Pierre-Paul before a shoulder injury sidelined him. "Great hands, good speed, real quick jab step to fake the inside move and then he gets outside quick. He's a good player.''
"He looks good to me,'' Ayers said. "He definitely looks like the type of player who can be among the tops in this league as far as defensive ends, run-stoppers and pass-rushers. He's lean, he's in shape, his motor runs. He's a super athlete, so the sky's the limit for him.''
The Giants have decent depth at the position, including Mathias Kiwanuka, Damontre Moore and Ayers. And no one with the Giants has publicly applied pressure to Pierre-Paul by saying they can't be successful without him returning to form. But it's pretty clear that now that he's healthy, they need him to not only be the most physically gifted player on the defense but to perform like it.
"Me personally, I'm going to be out there running full speed and chasing down running backs and chasing down quarterbacks,'' Pierre-Paul said. "That's what I do best.''